DEL MAR — Following a presentation outlining the alternatives for a train stop at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, and hearing concerns about the preferred option, Mayor Richard Earnest vowed to address the issue “the Del Mar way,” which he said is open, patient and “really embraces the idea of public input almost to a fault.”
“We will engage the public over and over again on issues that are as important as this, that affect residents, that affect the whole city,” he said at the Sept. 13 meeting.
Matt Tucker, executive director of North County Transit District, said the fairgrounds is one of two “hotspot locations” in the county being considered for a new platform “to significantly increase ridership and revenue.” The other is downtown at Petco Park.
“If there’s a way to grow the business, you should start with these two locations,” Tucker said.
The idea to add a stop at the fairgrounds is not new. There was a platform and pedestrian bridge at the track from the late 1930s until the mid-1960s. A new platform has been discussed for at least the past 25 years and is included in the fairgrounds master plan.
Councilwoman Crystal Crawford said a number of proposals have been studied over the years to get cars off the road and reduce congestion in Del Mar during the fair and race seasons, especially in the North Beach area and along Jimmy Durante Boulevard.
“Frankly, there have always been a number of obstacles,” she said.
Justin Fornelli, NCTD chief rail engineer, presented three alternatives that would all provide direct access to the fairgrounds, which attracted nearly 2 million people this year just for the fair and horse racing. Of those visitors only 3.5 percent, or 70,000, took the train to Solana Beach and were then bused to the fairgrounds.
The preferred long-term option is to build a permanent platform north of the river, directly west of the fairgrounds. But that requires double tracking and replacing the bridge over the San Dieguito River at an unfunded cost of approximately $80 million, Fornelli said.
It will also take at least 10 years to build, present several environmental concerns and route pedestrians across the parking lot.
Another alternative is a permanent standalone platform at the same location adjacent to the existing track without double tracking. With an estimated cost of $4 million to $5 million, the price tag is more attractive. But this option would require environmental mitigation and it is “operationally unacceptable to NCTD,” Fornelli said.
Trains would have to stop for extended periods to load and unload passengers.” There will be some significant dwell times of the trains sitting in there on the single track, which creates a bottleneck and actually a road block to the rest of the corridor,” Fornelli said. “No other trains can pass through the area.”
The preferred option at this time is to build a temporary platform south of the fairgrounds where double tracking already exists. Pedestrians would be routed along an abandoned railroad track to the location of the original pedestrian bridge across the river.
A temporary stop could be completed in three to five years at a cost of $5 million to $8 million, however, there would be some environmental constraints building the pedestrian bridge. This alternative may also result in noise and light intrusion into nearby neighborhoods and the temporary designation could pose funding issues, Fornelli said.
Carlsbad resident Richard Eckfield, an opponent of the temporary stop, said a permanent platform would cost $4 million if it were built even farther north of the river because there would be no need to double track and replace the bridge.
Del Mar resident Barbara Johansen, who has lived west of the tracks on 23rd Street since 2006, said the temporary platform would be built right next to her house.
“I deal with the trains all the time, but I am not in favor of any temporary anything right in a beautiful residential area,” she said.
If the permanent stop can’t be built now because of funding, “it shouldn’t be done at all,” Johansen said.
“If you’re going to do something … do it right the first time,” she said. “I don’t want to have to worry about what’s going to happen with my property values.”
Chuck Berke, a 24th Street resident, is a retired attorney who worked in planning and zoning in Chicago. He said the temporary platform would likely become permanent because the proposal for the permanent structure is improbable.
“I’ve never heard of an $80 million project that’s planned 10 years down the road that ever happened,” he said. “I think it’s somewhat unrealistic.”
Faced with an immediate need to address increasing traffic, decreasing rail ridership and requirements to comply with state mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the temporary platform seems a viable option for NCTD, Del Mar and the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which governs the fairgrounds.
“We’re trying to solve a lot of our regional problems,” Councilman Mark Filanc said.
“Why should we build a train stop?” Councilman Don Mosier asked. “It’s to get people out of their cars.” He said another nonrail alternative is the recent proposal to expand Interstate 5.
“We’ve got hard decisions to make about how we’re going to transport people,” Mosier said.
Tucker, Fornelli and council members all stressed the presentation was a first step. “We’re studying this,” Filanc said. “No decisions have been made. We’re very early on in the process.”
“There will be many more bites at this apple,” Earnest said. “We will continue to keep this on the front burner and we’ll come up with an answer.”
A similar presentation was scheduled for the Sept. 16 NCTD board of directors meeting. But that was postponed until Oct. 19 because Filanc and Carl Hilliard, Del Mar’s NCTD council liaisons, were out of town and unable to attend.
“This is a really important project for … NCTD strategically and an important project for the region,” Tucker said. “I think all of us are in the business of trying to reduce the amount of automobile traffic.”