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City seeking reallocation of $500,000 for railroad undercrossing

SOLANA BEACH — If all goes as planned Solana Beach may lose what many say is an unwanted parking lot and gain a much-needed railroad underpass at the San Elijo Lagoon trailhead.

As part of its plans to widen Interstate 5, the California Department of Transportation is proposing improvement projects in communities adjacent to the area of the freeway that will be expanded.

The widening project includes a pedestrian and bike path that will be connected to a reconstructed bridge spanning the lagoon. Although the city did not request it, Caltrans proposed building a $500,000 parking lot at the north end of Solana Hills Drive so people could park their cars there and walk to the path. Plans included lighting and signage.

Separate plans by other agencies call to double track the railroad over the San Elijo Lagoon within the next several years. In an environmental review comment letter the city stated that project should include a pedestrian underpass.

Doug Gibson, executive director of the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, contacted then-City Manager David Ott and suggested he ask Caltrans to reallocate the $500,000 for the proposed parking lot to pay for the underpass.

The crossing is expected to cost significantly less than the approximately $6 million spent to build a similar structure recently completed in Encinitas because it will be constructed as part of the double tracking project, Ott said.

Officials at Caltrans and North County Transit District told Ott they supported the redirection of the funds, however, NCTD did so with the caveat that it would not be expected to maintain the underpass.

In an email to the city Gibson stated the conservancy “will gladly take responsibility for maintaining any future trail connection that allows the public safe passage over or under the current rail line.”

Caltrans officials, who are working on cost estimates and funding sources, asked that the fund reallocation request be submitted in a letter.

Council members, with support from a handful of speakers, unanimously approved the request at the Nov. 19 meeting.

“The northern terminus of Solana Hills Drive is a stub that goes from Solana Hills Court … about 70 feet on the west side and about 60 feet on the east side,” Solana Hills Court resident Jim Nelson said.

“On the west side there is a fire hydrant … but there’s enough parking for two cars on the west side and parking for two on the east side. And there’s a street light there,” he added. “So you have a parking lot right now for four cars.

“And it then connects to Solana Hills Drive, which has no residences fronting it,” Nelson said. “The point is you’ve got a parking lot right there with a light. I don’t know why anybody would spend $5 to provide another parking lot, let alone $500,000.”

On the other hand, Nelson said the lack of an undercrossing is “beyond an attractive nuisance. It’s an unbelievable hazard.”

Resident Gerri Retman said reallocating the $500,000 is a quadruple win. Visitors will have a safe way to get across the tracks, she said.

There is no fiscal impact to the city, the conservancy agreed to take responsibility for maintenance, and it will “further enhance the walkability of our city and create another connection to the coastal rail trail,” Retman added. “This is the perfect use for the funds.”

Councilman Dave Zito said residents have asked him about the possibility of adding an undercrossing at the lagoon.

“I hope we can make it happen,” he said.

“This makes so much sense on many levels,” Councilman Peter Zahn added.