The Del Mar bluffs have been home to train tracks for over a hundred years. SANDAG has been conducting stabilization efforts on the bluff since the early 2000’s, and its latest effort will involve repairing existing drainage structures and using soldier piles to continue stabilizing portions of the bluff. Photo by Lexy Brodt.
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Del Mar officials discuss tunnel project options, future bluff stability

DEL MAR — The discussion on how and where to move the 100-plus-year-old train tracks on the Del Mar bluffs inched forward at a recent City Council meeting, as bluff collapses continue to become a daunting norm in the city.

The San Diego Association of Governments gave a presentation at a Feb. 11 City Council meeting on the transportation agency’s most up-to-date plan for negotiating bluff stability and the future of the train tracks.

SANDAG’s long-term plan for removing the tracks from the bluff anticipates a $2.5 to $3.5 billion price tag, depending on the tunnel’s type and location. The tunnel project is the last phase of the agency’s regional transportation plan — slated for 2050.

Linda Culp, principal planner with SANDAG, presented five options to the city for a potential tunnel between the Del Mar Fairgrounds and Sorrento Valley: an option for below Camino Del Mar, options for a high-speed tunnel or regular tunnel under Crest Canyon, and two options either just beneath or east of Interstate 5.

Aside from the option of a cut-and-cover tunnel at Camino Del Mar, all of the options are for twin bored tunnels — which would be created using a tunnel boring machine.

As outlined by Culp, every option has its caveats. The cut-and-cover option at Camino Del Mar is the least expensive, yet it might pose significant disruption to local businesses as well as traffic during construction. The high-speed tunnel option through Crest Canyon is the speediest, yet would require SANDAG acquiring “significant properties” for the passage’s graded segments.

SANDAG staff conducted a high-level analysis of five different tunnels in Del Mar that could accommodate the approximately five-mile portion of the LOSSAN corridor from Sorrento Valley to the Del Mar Fairgrounds. The tracks currently pass over the Del Mar bluffs, which are eroding at a rate of six inches per year. Visual courtesy of SANDAG.

An option underneath I-5 would be the costliest as well as the longest — at 5.3 miles. Culp said the positioning helps minimize the amount of property that would be needed to establish a right of way.

According to Culp, the next step in pursuing the long-term tunnel plan would be to conduct a comparative analysis of the options and keep an eye out for funding sources.

So far, plans for diverting the tracks have taken a back-seat to more immediate bluff stabilization efforts — which are now in their fourth phase since SANDAG’s first stabilization project in 2003. SANDAG’s mid-term plan involves stabilizing the bluffs until 2050, through the replacement of drainage structures, seawall repairs, bluff toe protection and additional soldier piles. Currently unfunded, the project is anticipated to cost $70 to $90 million in 2018 dollars.

Councilman Dwight Worden, who is on the SANDAG board of directors, is hoping to push forward the tunnel plan by narrowing down options.

“Can we as a community come to grips with which of these alternatives we really think we prefer and want to study further,” he said, hoping that SANDAG and the city can be “shovel-ready” when federal or state money becomes available.

Worden said although the project is expensive, SANDAG has embarked on other costly projects such as extending San Diego’s blue line trolley service from the Santa Fe Depot downtown to University City — a $2.1 billion endeavor.

“So you look at it in context and all of a sudden $3 billion doesn’t maybe look quite so daunting,” Worden said.

Local demand for a tunnel has only increased as of late, as bluff collapses continue to take marked chunks away from the cliff and even put a halt to train services.

Residents started speaking up en masse in early fall, shortly after the North County Transit District announced a plan to erect fencing on both sides of the track in order to deter trespassers and help protect vegetation conducive to bluff stability. There have been over a dozen trespasser strikes in Del Mar since January of 2014.

NCTD has since put the brakes on this plan, though discussions are moving forward on how to ensure safe access.

Resident Frank Stonebanks, an active local voice on the topic, urged the city and SANDAG to seek out creative solutions to fund tunnel plans.

“All of (the options) are a huge improvement on where we are,” he said. “ … I think we can tackle it maybe sooner than 2050. That’s my ask.”

Stonebanks is one of many citizens and council members alike who envision the blufftop eventually becoming a public park.

Stonebanks asserted that SANDAG could “double their throughput” by moving the tracks. SANDAG is currently embarking on a project to double track the LOSSAN rail corridor from Orange County to downtown San Diego. According to an NCTD engineer, double tracking is not feasible on the Del Mar bluffs.

Just over 50 trains per day travel along the rail corridor’s North County segment. The 20-year SANDAG double tracking project aims to double that number, but Culp said Del Mar could still accommodate the traffic with a single track.

For now, Del Mar faces the more immediate challenge of establishing safe and legal train track crossings on the bluff. The city is currently pursuing a feasibility study in partnership with SANDAG to study the possibility of establishing safe and legal rail crossings. There is presently only one legal train track crossing in Del Mar, at 15th Street.

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