Council to work with NCTD to soften enforcement efforts

Council to work with NCTD to soften enforcement efforts
About 500 people sign a petition to protest North County Transit District’s enforcement of laws that prohibit trespassing along the rail corridor. Council members agreed to work with the district to find short-term solutions to get people safely and legally across the tracks at the south end of the city, where there is no legal crossing. File photo by Bianca Kaplanek

DEL MAR — As North County Transit District, in the name of safety and compliance with federal regulations, began ticketing people for trespassing along the railroad tracks, a grassroots group collected about 500 signatures in less than a month from Del Mar residents and visitors who oppose the increased enforcement.

The petition, presented to the City Council at its Sept. 6 meeting by Citizens for Access to Del Mar Beach, asks NCTD to stop issuing tickets when no train is near or in sight, establish designated sites to cross the tracks between Sixth and 11th streets and work “diligently toward removing the tracks from the bluff within a decade.”

Nearly 20 people spoke at the meeting to complain about the stepped-up enforcement efforts.

“It is not OK to punish the rest of the populace for lack of judgment by the few,” Drew Cady said. “The concerns of NCTD can be addressed without this punitive action. … These problems won’t go away until something besides these incredibly disturbing police actions upon our citizens cease and a more reasonable approach is shown.”

“It’s ridiculous what NCTD is doing,” Bill Michalsky said. “They should do some (public service announcements), get the word out. Be careful if you’re on the bluffs.

“But this law enforcement tactic is just not getting them any favors,” he added. “They should try a new strategy. The (Federal Railroad Administration) and NCTD need to leave their bunkers and come out and see the real deal and come up with a solution that’s practical and efficient. It’s way over the top, this enforcement strategy.”

Stuart Fish called the ticketing “harassment.”

The increased enforcement didn’t come without warning. NCTD began a pilot program in Del Mar in 2014 to let people know crossing railroad tracks at an unauthorized area or walking or jogging alongside them is illegal. There are posted signs and warnings stenciled on the tracks.

The district planned to spend about a year on education and outreach before handing out tickets but those efforts were extended, with violators at times receiving warnings.

Despite those efforts, NCTD officials said the problem got worse.

Dahvia Lynch, NCTD’s chief planning officer, said there have been 19 fatalities and 15 injuries in 24 months along the San Diego coastal corridor.

So beginning Aug. 1, law enforcement officers began writing tickets that could cost violators up to $500. Since then they have issued about 120 tickets and made three arrests that could result in up to six months in jail.

Lynch said people have been walking along the bluffs in Del Mar for decades and she understands that is “part of the culture.”

But she noted that in fiscal year 2016 there were 1.5 million passengers on the Coaster and 3 million on Amtrak, as well as 5 million tons of freight moved along local rail line, making it the second busiest rail corridor in the United States.

And that number will likely double by 2050.

Lynch said federal laws require NCTD to “mitigate any safety issues or hazards that occur on their rail.”

If a fatality or accident occurs the district must put corrective actions in place to demonstrate how the problem is being addressed.

The federal government is getting more stringent about this, she said. We’re required to take all reasonable steps to limit and stop all fatalities and injuries.

Lynch also said fatalities impact train crews. NCTD has a post-traumatic stress disorder protocol that is put in place after incidents occur.

“This is a new issue in terms of the enforcement level,” she said. “Obviously this law has always been in place and we can no longer turn a blind eye.

“We recognize there are real issues here and there are no easy solutions,” she added.  “We are very prepared to work with you all to come up with solutions.”

Council members, for the most part, saw both sides of the issue.

“If people are crossing the tracks and there’s a train coming they should, I think, be given a ticket,” said Councilman Don Mosier, who represents Del Mar on the NCTD board of directors.

“If they’re walking parallel to the tracks on the bluffs and they’re not creating any danger to themselves or to the train traffic then I don’t see any reason they should be ticketed,” he added. “We need to have a softening of that enforcement action.”

Councilman Al Corti agreed, saying it’s “not wise to condone trespassing or unsafe movement.”

He said if people are acting “obviously dangerous or harmful, ticket them” but there’s no need “to go overboard.”

“To the extent where there’s responsible people out there … they should be allowed to (walk along the bluffs),” Corti said.

“I’m disappointed that NCTD has taken this approach,” said Councilman Terry Sinnott, who asked for a moratorium on ticket-writing.

He said he doesn’t disregard the legal issues NCTD is facing, “but you made a decision to enforce something that isn’t working. We can solve it without using the hammer approach.”

“I can’t commit to a moratorium on the ticketing,” Lynch said. “It’s a law and we don’t really have the authority to say (we’re not) enforcing the law.”

But she acknowledged that NCTD can “mitigate hazards” using engineering, education or enforcement.

“Our end game is to protect people and to … pass muster with the federal agencies,” she said. “If we can use those other tools to get there then enforcement becomes a lesser option.

“And so I think that’s our path to get away from the enforcement and to better options that are more satisfactory to the community and better for us, frankly, too. This is not a fun experience for anybody.”

Council appointed Sinnott and Dwight Worden to a subcommittee to work on short-term solutions for getting people across the tracks legally and safely. They will work with NCTD and report back by the end of November.

Worden said those solutions could include creating a rail trail on the west side of tracks, looking at building an overpass that doesn’t have to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act and seeking approval for an at-grade crossing.

In the long term, everyone agreed that the tracks need to be moved off the bluffs, a planned project that will cost more than $1 billion.

Council also adopted a resolution, which Mosier will present to the NCTD board later this month, that states Del Mar supports working with NCTD on short-term solutions to get pedestrians across railways and wants enforcement to be ratcheted way back.

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