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The California Coastal Commission has approved plans to implement stabilization structures along the Del Mar bluffs to help strengthen unstable rail tracks. Photo by Prime Pixel
Rail track along the Del Mar Bluff. Photo by Prime Pixel
Community Commentary Opinion

Commentary: What $300 million for rail relocation does for Del Mar

By Terry Gaasterland

To increase railroad safety, security, and efficiency, in June, California’s governor and state legislature allocated $300 million to relocate the railroad track off the beautiful, natural Del Mar Bluff. 

This allocation makes relocation by 2030 a feasible reality, according to the Hassan Ikhrata, executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG.

But how? Let’s take a look.

WHAT HAPPENED?

A sentence in a “junior bill” called Assembly Bill 180 (AB 180) reads: “$300,000,000 shall be available to a metropolitan planning organization for project development activities related to rail realignment capital projects for high-priority intercity rail corridors located primarily in the coastal zone.”

The bill passed as part of the California 2022-23 State Budget — $300 million in a single sentence.

The text in AB 180  does not specifically name SANDAG, LOSSAN (rail corridor between Los Angeles and San Diego) or the Del Mar bluffs.

Three questions arise:

1. What guarantees that “a metropolitan planning organization” will be SANDAG?

2. What guarantees the “corridors” and “location” will be the tracks on the Del Mar bluffs?

3. How will this language in the three-page junior bill AB 180 translate into “$300 million to relocate the rails off the Del Mar bluffs?”

On July 8, I posed these questions to Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata after his report to the SANDAG board. Here are his answers:

1. SANDAG is the only metropolitan planning organization that meets the terms in AB 180.

2. The LOSSAN corridor and the Del Mar Bluffs are the only corridor and location that meet the terms in AB 180.

The third question regarding how the $300 million is used will be addressed at the SANDAG board meeting on Sept. 9 (from 9 a.m. to noon).

HOW WILL THE $300 MILLION BE USED?

We pose the following more detailed questions to guide the Sept. 9 discussion:

• What can the $300 million be used for?

• Can we use the $300 million to accelerate the process — feasibility, environmental and geotechnical study, construction plans — to accomplish the much needed, high priority safety goal: Get the railroad track off the eroding bluffs by 2030?

• What needs to happen to start using the funds for this goal?

• Is relocation to the I-5 right of way with a smaller tunnel under Del Mar Heights Road still a viable alternative?

• What are the three relocation options for study in the EIR? Is the No Project Alternative one of them?

• Will the entirety of the funding be dedicated to the Del Mar rail realignment project? Or will the money be used for other things in addition to that project?

• Will the funding be sufficient to complete all of the predevelopment work for the Del Mar Bluffs rail realignment project and produce a “shovel ready” project that will be competitive for state/federal funding for construction?

CHOOSING A PATH FORWARD

Environmental study and geotechnical analysis will be the critical next step to understand impacts on the environment and quality of life. 

A feasibility study underway seeks to address the following: Where can the railroad track go? What are the alignment options?  What are the trade-offs? 

One alignment under study is a deep tunnel underneath Del Mar hillside from Jimmy Durante Boulevard (JDB) to Portofino Road. 

Another is a shallower tunnel east of Camino Del Mar from JDB to Carmel Valley Road. 

A third would place the tracks along the I-5 Right of Way with a smaller tunnel under Del Mar Heights Road east of Mango. The deep tunnel would bypass most of Penasquitos Lagoon and connect to the track north of the lagoon. 

An I-5 alignment would impact San Dieguito Lagoon. All alignments under consideration have pros and cons.  SANDAG’s study also looks at cost and train speed trade-offs as well. 

Every curve and grade change in the track will slow the trains.

IN SUMMARY

The $300 million needs to be used to carefully and thoroughly compare the impacts of each alignment. 

Can entrances to a tunnel be constructed away from all homes? Can noise and vibration be eliminated? Can construction be staged away from neighborhoods? How does each alignment improve on leaving the tracks in place (the No Project Alternative)?

Answers to these questions will be critical for people in Del Mar and the region to understand the choices and the impacts, both positive and negative.

LEARN MORE

• Read AB 180, Section 2, Provision 3: https://legiscan.com/CA/text/AB180/2021;

• Watch SANDAG Board meeting: http://tinyurl.com/SANDAG-300million.

Terry Gaasterland is a Del Mar resident who serves on the Del Mar City Council and SANDAG board.

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