DEL MAR — The SANDAG board’s recent decision to redirect $14.7 million in funding from Del Mar’s bluff access improvement project has prompted concern from city leaders, who say the agency could jeopardize the project.
The proposed access improvements are part of the city’s $78 million fifth-phase bluff stabilization project, which includes around 2,000 feet of seawalls and other infrastructure to protect the rail line. Due to the anticipated loss of sand from the project, the California Coastal Commission requires the implementation of a rail crossing in the form of an underpass or at-grade crossing down to the beach from the blufftop.
The commission has ordered SANDAG to begin construction on the rail crossing within three years of the stabilization’s planned start date in late March or early April. However, on Oct. 27, a SANDAG board majority agreed to reallocate funds intended for this crossing to two other projects in its 2024 program budget.
In late January, the Del Mar City Council sent a letter to SANDAG asking the agency to create a plan for identifying new funds as soon as possible.
“With the allocation of the Access Improvements construction funding to other projects and no alternative source of funding identified, the SANDAG Board has put this critically important and legally required mitigation work in jeopardy,” the city said.
The suggestion to reallocate funding came from Encinitas Mayor Tony Kranz, who advocated for prioritizing more shovel-ready projects.
Specifically, the board reallocated $9 million toward the Coastal Rail Trail project along Santa Fe Drive in Encinitas, providing additional bike infrastructure, and $5.7 toward the Batiquitos Lagoon Bike and Trail Connection in Carlsbad, which proposes a nearly one-mile trail under Interstate 5 from the lagoon Nature Center to Mermaid Lane.
With the funds reallocated, Del Mar leaders are now worried about SANDAG being able to find the money to construct the crossing within the three-year timeframe.
“The bluff access is not funded, yet bluff stabilization is moving forward. So, it’s moving forward with unfunded mitigation,” City Councilmember Terry Gaasterland said at the Jan. 22 council meeting.
SANDAG said in a Thursday statement that they are committed to delivering the rail crossing project and still have funding to cover environmental clearance, preliminary and final design, and a portion of construction.
“While an initial cost estimate has been developed, it is subject to change based on design. After reaching 30% design and environmental clearance, we’ll assess what potential funding sources could be used to complete construction,” SANDAG said.
SANDAG is considering two rail crossing options: an at-grade crossing either at 11th or 7th streets or an undercrossing in the form of a tunnel through the bluff at 7th Street.
In April last year, the Del Mar City Council supported an undercrossing at 7th Street, although SANDAG will have the final say.
Some Del Mar residents expressed frustration at the City Council’s Feb. 5 meeting. Resident John Stall said the city needs to be prepared to “fight for every nickel,” while Camilla Rang said the city should not have taken so long to respond to SANDAG’s decision.
“I don’t know how to say this less bluntly, but why did it take three months to react, and why did it take three months for us to know?” Rang asked.
Gaasterland said the city needed time to craft and bring forward the letter and conduct legal analysis to confirm SANDAG’s obligations regarding the project.
The Jan. 22 letter also raised concerns about one SANDAG board member’s comment at the October meeting. During that discussion, La Mesa City Councilmember Jack Shu said Del Mar should foot the bill for access improvements.
“To be clear, the City of Del Mar has no responsibility, nor is the City in a financial position, to contribute funds for the construction of SANDAG’s required mitigation project,” the letter said.
SANDAG will update the Del Mar City Council on March 4 about the planned start of the stabilization project.