CARLSBAD — It is one of the city’s most ambitious and necessary long-term goals.
Trenching the train tracks comes with a hefty price, yet it’s a priority for the City Council.
But Councilman Mark Packard, who is also president of the board of directors for the North County Transit District (NCTD), has an aggressive plan, to say the least.
While a feasibility study isn’t due to be released for another several weeks, the long-time councilman is pushing hard to get the project off the ground. The study analyzes double-trenched tracks versus double tracks at street level.
Packard said he wants to see the project finished in six years, although he admitted it is a lofty timeline. He noted this plan has not been approved or agreed to by the City Council, but it is his goal for the tracks.
His plan is to trench the tracks from Buena Vista Lagoon to Agua Hedionda Lagoon.
The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), Packard added, project a 20-year timeline, although the agency’s assessment is more about funding concerns, Packard said.
“With Measure A not passing, we are going to go for more federal and state funding,” he explained. “People at SANDAG think I’m crazy. There are different timelines, and mine is much more aggressive.”
The biggest obstacle, though, is cost. Packard said the ambitious plan is estimated at $350 million and with the failure of Measure A in November, other sources of funding are required.
Measure A would have raised sales taxes by half a cent and been earmarked for transportation and open space projects. The measure needed two-thirds of the vote and added billions of dollars to SANDAG’s coffers.
But now, a sizable chunk will have to come from Carlsbad. Packard said typically 20 percent is required before state and federal funding sources kick in.
And while $70 million from the city is significant, he said it pales in comparison to the benefits of trenching.
“My plan is that the city put its local money in the front, early, so we can cover a lot of the environmental reviews, while we’re working on securing state and federal money,” Packard said. “Typically, the federal and state governments are willing to bring money to the table when a project is shovel ready.”
SANDAG projects train traffic will double in the next 10 to 20 years, which is another reason why the city is pushing for trenching.
NCTD Executive Director Matthew Tucker said it is likely the district will be pushed toward discretionary funding and federal money. He noted within the Federal Transportation Program there have been discussions about significant investment in infrastructure.
“If that becomes a reality, that is a potential opportunity,” Tucker said. “At the state level, there are discussions out there about increasing transportation funding for good state of repair.”
He also said there may be grants available through the state’s Cap and Trade Program to support projects for the operation of the railroad.
Tucker said working on the project must support the desires of a community.
“It makes sense for them to explore looking at better integrating the rail operations for future plans for more a walkable and vibrant Carlsbad Village,” he added. “To me, that is something we want to a maximum degree support, as best we can support.”
He also noted funding must be identified to support any possible cost increases in maintenance and operations.
Tucker said even without approval, it is critical for entities such as NCTD to target and be ready for projects such as Carlsbad’s to anticipate growth projections.
“It’s always important to continue to develop these projects and get them ready as you can,” he explained. “Just because you don’t have the money you need today, doesn’t mean right around the corner all those dollars won’t be available or potentially be available when you’re ready with a project.”
Shovel ready, meanwhile, means the project has all the groundwork laid in the form of environmental reviews, construction plans and other logistical details.
One of the big reasons trenching is the preferred, Packard said, is to prevent loss of life on the tracks. Over the past year, the council has discussed trenching, specifically with their counterparts in Solana Beach in mind, where the tracks were trenched years ago.
Since then, Solana Beach has not recorded one death due to a train accident. Carlsbad, Packard said, has had 19 over the years.
And a cold fact is the city must spend money to either defend or settle lawsuits, which Packard said total more than eight figures.
“We expect the same thing to happen to Carlsbad,” Packard said of the fatalities. “That’s a significant savings in life and the cost of the legal challenges that come with loss of life. We’re going to spend it on trenching or on lawsuits of loss of life. I’d rather spend it on trenching and save the lives.”
Other benefits, meanwhile, include reduced traffic, air pollution due to idling cars at railroad crossings, less noise pollution and easier access for fire and police personnel.
“There will not be all the delays,” Packard said. “The safety factors will be significantly enhanced as well. Not just socially and environmentally, economically this makes sense.”
Yet another bonus, he said, is the options available to the city should the tracks be trenched.
“You can build things over the top of it, depending on what you want there,” Packard added. “Parks, or a parking structure, for example. There’s lots of different things you can do. That’s a good problem to have.”