CARDIFF-BY-THE-SEA — The county’s regional planning agency is moving forward with a controversial 1.3-mile stretch of bicycle and pedestrian trail alongside San Elijo Avenue in Cardiff after officials voted to increase the project budget by $5 million.
The San Diego Association of Governments voted in early June to increase the budget for the Cardiff section of the Coastal Rail Trail from $6.1 million to no more than $11 million.
SANDAG’s vote came several weeks after the California Coastal Commission voted against a proposal to put the rail trail to the west side of Coast Highway 101, against the preferences of SANDAG, the city of Encinitas and a number of residents.
The current project budget of $6.1 million isn’t enough to complete the project, which will run parallel to San Elijo Avenue along the rail right of way, SANDAG staff said in a June 9 report. Estimates have ballooned to $10 million, the staff report said.
SANDAG’s board of directors unanimously approved the request after hearing from a number of residents who supported the additional funding.
Meanwhile, Encinitas officials, including Mayor Catherine Blakespear, are working with the agency to shrink the width of the trail to appease residents who have argued that the trail will foul one of the remaining vestiges of pristine natural coastal terrain in the city. Blakespear said she has asked SANDAG to consider reducing the project’s width from 17 feet to 10 feet, that the trail be made with emulsified or compacted decomposed granite to look more natural than the asphalt trail currently proposed and that they move the required 4-foot post-and-cable fence as close to the railroad tracks as possible to allow the informal trails to remain.
“We’ve made our request, and I’ve sat in meetings with staff stating our case for why the footprint should be smaller than what is currently being proposed,” Blakespear said. “It’s an ongoing process.”
For opponents of the so-called “east side alignment” that the Coastal Commission voted down, a smaller footprint would be a small consolation, although some said the hurt feelings remain.
“I think if it happens, it would make a terrible thing a tiny bit less terrible,” said Julie Thunder, one of the chief members of the “No Rail Trail” group, which successfully lobbied the Encinitas City Council to switch its trail location preference from the east side to the west side in 2016. “This whole thing has been a bummer to us, and when it starts going in, when they start building it, what happened a year and a half ago is going to happen again,” Thunder said, referring to the widespread community opposition in late 2015 and 2016. “I think people don’t realize how bad it is going to be until they start building it.”
Thunder said while most opponents are “pretty much done” with their organized opposition, they had held out hope that SANDAG and the city would choose to just not build the trail at all, rather than move forward with it.
Linda Culp of SANDAG said that the trail is part of a suite of projects approved by its agency along with Caltrans and the Coastal Commission known as the North Coastal Corridor Public Works Plan and Transportation and Resource Enhancement Program.
The first phase of the multi-phased plan includes the widening of Interstate 5, double tracking of the rail corridor and Encinitas’ segments of the rail trail, which when completed will be a 44-mile continuous stretch of biking and walking trails between Oceanside and San Diego.
Once crews began work on the first phase of the public works plan this summer, it essentially guaranteed that the rail trail would have to be completed, as the plan’s implementation documents require all work on the first phase be completed before certain projects in the second phase can begin.
“We could have theoretically waited until later to start the project, but you must complete a phase before you go on to the next phase, so eventually we would have to build the trail, and the Coastal Commission has ruled that it must be on the east side of the rail,” Culp said.
As for Encinitas’ request for concessions on the size and location of fencing along the rail trail, Culp said that SANDAG is currently reviewing them.
“We haven’t dismissed or come to a conclusion on any of them,” Culp said. “Those discussions are in progress.”