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Wednesday’s special city council meeting will discuss the Cardiff Rail Trail and reconsider the council's support of the current alignment of the trail. Photo by Tony Cagala
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Cardiff Rail trail showdown set for Wednesday

ENCINITAS — A showdown that could decide the fate of the Cardiff section of the Coastal Rail Trail is set for Wednesday.

The City Council is hosting a special meeting at which they will discuss, among other things, a request made by Councilwoman Catherine Blakespear to reconsider the council’s support of the current alignment of the trail, along San Elijo and Vulcan avenues in Cardiff.

The City Council endorsed the 2-mile trail section in May 2015, but the decision has come under intense criticism from a large faction of Cardiff residents, who believe the trail is not right for the coastal community. Opponents said the trail’s construction would likely trigger the erection of a fence along the rail corridor in Cardiff, that would cut off a popular, albeit illegal, pedestrian crossing area, as well as foul pristine natural coastal terrain.

Opponents have peppered the inboxes of elected officials and media for months with form letters outlining the group’s reasons for opposing the project. In recent weeks, they have erected signs throughout Cardiff. They support moving the rail trail along Coast Highway 101, which they said has the infrastructure in place to support the trail.

Mayor Kristin Gaspar, who has opposed the current configuration, said the trail has been the most polarizing community issue she has faced during her six years on the dais.

“We’ve received thousands of emails on this topic,” Gaspar said. “I’ve never encountered such a resounding community outcry.”

Supporters of the project have also mounted a campaign to preserve the current trail alignment, but recently redirected their efforts to another critical component of the trail debate: the Montgomery Avenue at-grade pedestrian crossing.

The Montgomery Avenue crossing was seen by supporters of the trail as an olive branch to the community, which would lose the illegal access as soon as the North County Transit District erects the fence along the rail corridor.

But city engineering staff told the council in February that the crossing at Montgomery Avenue might not qualify for a “quiet zone” designation from the Federal Rail Administration, which means that either train horns or wayside horns would blow in the area, disrupting neighbors and nearby Cardiff Elementary School.

If the crossing doesn’t get the designation, then the city would have to potentially consider an underground crossing at the intersection, which would cost $7.5 million to $8 million, according to the estimates.

This revelation is what caused Blakespear to withdraw her support.

In a letter addressed to Gaspar last week, however, supporters reaffirmed their support for the trail alignment and outlined their reasons for supporting it.

“First of all, you must know that we have a big problem on North San Elijo Avenue,” the letter states. “The bluff top is a mess with haphazard parking creating an obstacle course for pedestrians and cyclists, forcing them out into traffic. This stretch of road is not safe for walkers and bikers, and it stands between Cardiff and the wonderful pedestrian underpass at Swami’s. We need a better answer, a safe path accessible to all.

“To the south we have issues with beach access,” the letter continues. “People are crossing the tracks and Coast Highway illegally, risking their lives as well as a misdemeanor ticket and a huge fine. A consultant hired by the City recently documented up to 90 people crossing per hour on a busy weekend day. Let’s be clear, this is an accident waiting to happen.

“There is ultimately only one answer: A safe and legal crossing at Montgomery Avenue. This needs to happen now and not a decade or more in the future,” the letter states.

Blakespear’s request also asks the council to consider forming a working group of citizens for the trail project and that the council discuss the entire rail corridor before pursuing a rail trail alignment through Cardiff.

City staff said in a report that Blakespear’s request could have ripple effects that would impact several projects in the corridor, including the Montgomery crossing and companion project to improve the pedestrian crossing at Montgomery and Coast Highway 101. The project could also delay the timeline the San Diego Association of Governments has set for the rail trail’s construction.

Additionally, SANDAG has already spent $700,000 on the current alignment, and it is not clear if the work completed could be used if the city chooses to support a different alignment.