Above: Local officials and supporters celebrated the grand opening of the 1.3-mile stretch of the Coastal Rail Trail on May 10 in Encinitas. Courtesy photo/SANDAG
ENCINITAS — Two years ago, the California Coastal Commission’s decision to build the Cardiff section of the Coastal Rail Trail parallel to San Elijo Avenue was met with boos, jeers and shock from local officials.
Today, an elderly woman and her friend walk north along the stained concrete path, crossing paths with a mother and her baby in a stroller headed south.
And officials — some who opposed the project — and supporters celebrated the grand opening of the 1.3-mile stretch of the Coastal Rail Trail on May 10, absent the controversy and opposition that dogged the project through much of the planning process.
“I’m thrilled with the rail trail,” said Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who in 2016 cast the decisive vote to withdraw the council’s support of the eastern alignment in favor of placing the rail trail west of Coast Highway 101. “It couldn’t be better, it’s beautifully designed, and it’s serving hundreds of people who want to go places outside of their car.”
Blakespear said that early in the process, she was concerned with the artist renderings of the project, which were widely panned by residents in Cardiff as being a “concrete highway” paved atop one of the last few undeveloped areas in town along the rail corridor.
“I couldn’t visualize it from looking at the engineering drawings, the plans did not make it look like it would fit in,” she said. “It looked like a Soviet air strip, and not fitting into the natural environment at all.”
Opponents of the eastern alignment mounted a furious campaign in 2016 after learning that the council had endorsed it a year before. The “No Rail Trail” campaign peppered the inboxes of government officials and media members with petitions and erected signs throughout Cardiff.
The City Council in March 2016 reversed course, withdrawing its support of the eastern alignment, which began a sometimes contentious reconciliation process with the San Diego Association of Governments, the planning agency behind the project, which ultimately also recommended support for a western alignment.
But in May 2017, the Coastal Commission voted 7-5 in favor of keeping the alignment east of the rail corridor.
Blakespear, who after that May hearing said she was “shocked,” by the outcome, said this week that project turned out much better than anyone could have anticipated.
“The way it turned out, it’s not straight, and it winds with the natural terrain, and it has the feeling of being connected to the nature that you’re in, not just plopped down on top of it.
“It gives me confidence in the professionals at the agencies with which we work and their ability to understand the aesthetic sensibility when it comes to building in our city.”
The project still has its detractors, though not as vocal in the past.
Julie Thunder, who co-founded the “No Rail Trail” campaign, said she could understand why people like the path, but laments the loss of natural terrain, and the imminent loss of the ability to cross the tracks and directly walk to the beach, a chief concern among opponents.
“I can certainly see why others like it — it’s really is a nice walk or bike ride,” Thunder said. “But, like others who live nearby, I will deeply miss being able to walk to the beach — as of today, they have left some of the maintenance gates unlocked, but it’s just a matter of days until they close that access off to us.”
“Also, I miss the wild meandering trail that was there for many decades,” she said. “Now there are three parallel roads down that corridor: Highway 101, the Rail Trail, and San Elijo Avenue.”
Thunder and others point out that while technically illegal, train crossings haven’t led to an accidental fatality along Cardiff’s stretch of the rail corridor in over 50 years.
“But we are all NIMBYs about our homes and hometown and people in Cardiff pay a lot to live here and to be able to walk to the beach,” she said. “I would have liked to have our city representatives stand up for our historical beach access or force SANDAG to build the undercrossing with the rail trail.”