ENCINITAS — The California Coastal Commission next week will decide the placement of a controversial segment of the Coastal Rail Trail, nearly a year after the city reversed course on its preferred alignment.
But the city’s preferred location of the 1.3-mile so-called “Cardiff Rail Trail” — west of Coast Highway 101 — faces significant headwind, as the Coastal Commission staff has come out in opposition of the proposal.
The May 11 meeting begins at 8:30 a.m. at the San Diego County Board of Supervisors chambers at 1600 Pacific Hwy.
The coastal commission’s staff, in its staff report for the May 11 meeting, said it does not support the western alignment because it was not part of a large plan that the agency adopted that covered a suite of projects, including freeway widening and the double tracking of the rail corridor in North County.
The North Coastal Corridor Public Works Plan and Transportation and Resource
Enhancement Program, which the commission approved in August 2014, placed the segment of the Coastal Rail Trail just east of the railroad tracks adjacent to San Elijo Avenue. The City Council voted this as its preferred alternative in May 2015.
But the council changed course in March 2016 after hundreds of residents peppered elected officials for months with form letters petitioning the council to reconsider the alignment. Residents worried that the eastern alignment would trigger the installation of a fence blocking access from the east side of the tracks to the beach, and that the SANDAG approved bicycle path would replace the natural terrain with a large, unsightly asphalt path.
Mayor Catherine Blakespear said that the city is arguing that the western alignment is more compatible with the already completed legs of the rail trail.
“Our argument is that placing the bike path along Highway 101 will more successfully achieve the goals of the project than placing the bike path east of the railroad track,” Blakespear said in her recent newsletter. “The bike lanes to our north in Carlsbad and Solana Beach to the south run along Highway 101. We want to continue the path along the routes folks are already using, and not force them to detour inland.”
The staff report is critical of the city’s position change and also claims that the city and the San Diego Association of Governments — which is the project applicant — did not immediately communicate the change with the commission staff.
“However, neither SANDAG nor the City communicated this significant change in project scope to Commission staff until after planning on the western alignment had begun and did not involve Commission staff in any of these previous discussions with the City Council,” the staff report reads. “When SANDAG formally presented the modified project to Commission staff … on June 1, 2016, Commission staff immediately identified that the western alignment would not be consistent with the NCC PWP/TREP for several reasons.”
According to commission staff, the project isn’t in the rail corridor, which is required under the public works plan, which only allows for exceptions if the original alignment was environmentally or physically unfeasible, which it wasn’t.
Additionally, the commission argued that the rail trail was supposed to be a new project, and improving existing bike lanes along Coast Highway 101 isn’t the same.
Finally, the commission staff argued that the project would require a reduction in vehicle lanes on Coast Highway 101, which is inconsistent with the city’s own circulation element and could snarl traffic along the main thoroughfare.
City officials have already committed to creating a bike and walking path along San Elijo Avenue, which residents who live along the stretch of Cardiff have clamored for years. But Blakespear said that the SANDAG rail trail project isn’t the right fit for that side of the tracks.
“I still believe that we need to improve the rail corridor and the adjacent San Elijo and Vulcan Avenues,” Blakespear said. “However, this SANDAG bike highway is not the project to accomplish that goal. SANDAG’s project has specific requirements that are not very flexible.
“We want the city, not an outside regional agency, to be able to design and control the ultimate look and feel of the improvements in the rail corridor,” Blakespear said.
Blakespear said she is cautiously optimistic that the appointed board of elected officials will see the city’s perspective. San Diego’s representative, Supervisor Greg Cox, has signaled support of the city’s alternative, Blakespear said.