Railroad underpasses approved by commission

ENCINITAS — The Planning Commission approved permits for the design and construction of three pedestrian railroad crossings at its meeting Feb. 19, despite some opposition to the design from commissioners and residents.
City staff also revealed the uncertainty of financing for the projects. “We’re continuing to search out both federal and state funds for this,” Richard Phillips, assistant to the city manager, told commissioners.
Each underpass comes with a price tag of approximately $5 million, Phillips said. However, he acknowledged that the figure does not include the changes recommended by the commission.
Commissioners voted to widen the crossings from 20 feet to 28 feet.
The city has set aside only enough money for one crossing at Santa Fe Drive but hopes to secure federal and state funding for the remaining crossings. The city budgeted $1 million while the state has earmarked an additional $4 million for the project.
The proposed underpasses are planned at the intersections of El Portal Street, Santa Fe Drive and Montgomery Avenue. The themes for the designs at each crossing would feature the city’s history, the ocean and bluffs.
Despite approving the design, Commissioner Paul Van Slyke said the plans were not much of an improvement from what the commission was shown in December.
Commissioner Mark Steyaert said the project was a waste of taxpayer funds. In fact, the commissioners agreed that the simplest way to improve access across the railroad tracks was to build at-grade crossings rather than underpasses. However, Phillips said the state’s Public Utilities Commission would not support such a request due to safety and insurance concerns.
The project has been in the planning phase since 2002 when the North County Transit District agreed with the city to improve pedestrian access to the coast.
Legal crossings are few and far between along the railroad corridor which presents a barrier separating residents and visitors from the beach, restaurants, shops and schools. “There is no reason for me to be able to see my children’s school from my house but to still have to get in the car and drive there,” said Dean Lawrence who lives just west of North Coast Highway 101. “We would love to walk to school but there’s no safe crossing that’s remotely convenient.”
Currently, only six such railroad crossings spaced one mile or more apart exist. But that doesn’t stop some residents from making the leap across the tracks. “I just take the risk that I’ll get a ticket,” John Ricks said. The Cardiff-by-the-Sea resident said he routinely crosses the tracks to get to the beach. Pedestrians face trespassing fines of up to $1,000 for crossing the railroad tracks illegally.

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