City working to remove tracks from bluffs sooner than planned

City working to remove tracks from bluffs sooner than planned
Del Mar City Council members are no longer sticking to a plan to remove the train tracks from the deteriorating bluffs in 2050. They recently agreed to start collecting information now to help move the project forward sooner. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek

DEL MAR — With North County Transit District enforcing railroad trespassing laws and Mother Nature and sea level rise taking a toll the coastline, the Del Mar City Council is working to remove the railroad tracks from its bluffs sooner than 2050, the San Diego Association of Governments’ current target date for the project.

Council members unanimously agreed at the Jan. 14 meeting to move forward with a plan, authored by Mayor Terry Sinnott and Councilman Dwight Worden, which also seeks to identify safe and legal ways to cross the tracks.

Worden and Sinnott will begin collecting data from existing studies and engineering reports that detail the current state of the bluffs and how much has been spent to shore them up.

They plan to use that information to let other cities know Del Mar is starting the process to remove the tracks from the bluffs. They also hope to get SANDAG officials onboard to help create a scope of work and feasibility report.

“If things go the way they should, which they never do, we’ll get SANDAG’s cooperation,” Worden said.

In 2014, SANDAG’s regional transportation plan estimated the cost of a tunnel and double tracking at $1.3 billion.

“Where was never determined,” Councilman Dave Druker said. “There’s not a whole lot of choices.”

Recommendations have included building a tunnel under Camino del Mar or Crest Canyon or along Interstate 5. Druker said all three have different impacts.

That’s where the feasibility study comes in. Once the best option is selected, updated cost estimates can be made and funding can be identified.

The tracks will eventually need to be relocated because, according to studies, bluff failure is imminent, either from a storm, an earthquake or a combination of both. Since that also makes the problem an operational issue, Worden suggested including all rail line users in the plan.

“I think a reliable tunnel that’s double-tracked and that doesn’t have risks and service interruptions is something that ought to appeal to BNSF and Amtrak,” he said. “They ought to be allies.

“Their history is they just hang out and run their trains and unless you drag them into the policy arena they stay out,” he added.

There is ongoing work to double-track the entire Los Angeles to San Diego rail corridor. But it cannot be done in Del Mar because of bluff instability.

Safety is the other main reason for getting the tracks off the deteriorating bluffs. The only lawful way to get over them and to the beach in Del Mar is at a legal crossing. The only one in the city is on Coast Boulevard in the north end of town.

“You’ve got this high-speed rail line with trains going 90 miles an hour blocking the people from getting to the beach,” Worden said. “There’s only two solutions to that. You keep killing people — and we’re doing it at the rate of about a dozen a year now between Oceanside and San Diego — or you grade separate it.

“But the rail people tell you that’s too expensive,” he added. “They’ll just want to fence it. And fencing the entire coastline off … is so contrary to where we’re headed. That’s the kind of conundrum that leaves you with a choice of killing people or blocking the coast, neither of which is acceptable.”

At-grade crossings such as the one on Coast Boulevard allow people to cross on the tracks. At a grade-separated crossing, like the ones in Solana Beach and Encinitas, people can go over or under the rail line.

“The only way the track is going to be safe so that people are not crossing it and getting killed or committing suicide on it is if it is grade-separated all the way along the track,” Druker said. “Nobody is committing suicide, shall we say, in Solana Beach because you can’t get to the track. It’s as simple as that.”

The California Public Utilities Commission, which governs rail crossings, generally favors grade separating at all new crossings. However, they are expensive. With a few exceptions, the agency opposes the creation of any new at-grade crossings.

Sinnott said it will be important to build momentum so people in the entire region recognize that getting the trains off the bluff is a good safety, economic and environmental move.

“Let’s start gathering the information, with help from SANDAG, so we can create a logical, complete picture of why the project needs to move forward sooner rather than waiting,” he said.

“If (people) see a regional benefit, which I think there will be, it will help us, because if it’s just little Del Mar saying we want this off the bluff, we don’t get anywhere,” Sinnott added. “We want to develop a good case.”

Druker also stressed the importance of including Del Mar residents in the decision-making process.

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