DEL MAR — The Del Mar City Council has formally recommended that county engineers further study plans for railway undercrossings, among other options, along the city bluffs to help people safely access the beach.
The city’s recommendation came on April 17 after being asked to give its input on six rail crossing options presented by the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, as part of a 2021 pedestrian access improvement agreement.
SANDAG leaders are eager to narrow their options and work on further designs. But the clock is already ticking, with the agency required to begin implementing these improvements within three years of kicking off the Del Mar Bluffs Phase 5 project, planned to start later this year.
“That is the target goal, to make sure that this falls on right at the end of [Phase 5]. As we’re wrapping up this, we’d like to get into construction of the access improvements directly after,” said SANDAG senior engineer Allie DeVaux. “We have all these great concepts, but we really need to hone it in and narrow it down to get to those next steps.”
If all goes according to plan, these crossings may only be necessary until around 2035, when regional leaders plan to relocate this crucial stretch of the LOSSAN (Los Angeles-San Luis Obispo-San Diego) corridor further inland and off the fragile bluff.
SANDAG presented two crossing options: at-grade crossings, which allow residents to directly cross the tracks with warning systems for when the train is coming, and undercrossings, passages through the bluff that would enable residents to pass under the tracks.
An at-grade option would be feasible at both proposed crossing locations — 11th Street and the stretch of 7th to 8th streets — while an undercrossing is feasible only between 7th and 8th streets. In addition, with each crossing, there is the option for stairs or ramps leading down to the beach.
Per an initial analysis by engineering firm WSP, costs for an at-grade crossing would range from $5.7 million with stairs to $9.7 million with ramps, with an undercrossing ranging from $7 million with stairs to $12.8 million with ramps.
In a 4-1 majority, with Dwight Worden dissenting, the council recommended further study of the undercrossing option at the 7th-8th site with either ramps or stairs. They also requested that SANDAG review a resident-created concept for a bridge crossing at 10th Street over the tracks.
Several council members, including Councilmember Dave Druker, said they would not support at-grade crossings because of the noise from the train horn and warning systems that would disturb neighbors living along the bluff.
Druker added that the approval needed from the California Public Utilities Commission for an at-grade crossing would add another onerous step to the process.
“For me, I think at-grade crossings, in some ways, are a non-starter. It is not gonna happen,” Druker said. “In turn, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to spend time on it.”
Worden said he didn’t want to take at-grade crossings off the table before more detailed plans could be developed. He also expressed concerns about the permanent impacts of burrowing an eight-by-ten-foot passage through the fragile bluffs.
“It’s not gonna be built until about 2026, and the rails are gonna be off in 2035. We’re talking about a seven- or eight-year window that we’re gonna have something to get people across the tracks,” said Worden. “At that point I have trouble with the undercrossing, which is permanent, destructive to the bluffs, and it’s most expensive.”
DeVaux said SANDAG did consider a pedestrian bridge crossing early in the process but nixed it due to concerns about view blockage. However, she confirmed that engineers could look at different designs for such a crossing at 10th Street.
Another major part of SANDAG’s planned access improvements is a trail on the east side of the tracks that will run just under a mile from Seagrove Park to 4th Street.
Councilmembers supported the continued study of plans for this trail, with the caveat that any designs for trail fencing should be limited to a short, “fall-proof” model rather than tall chain-link fencing. Concerns explicitly centered on the North County Transit District’s efforts to implement this “invasive” tall fencing along various sections of the bluff in early 2022.
“The north-south trail will be an asset to our community, but only if it’s fall-protection fencing, cable, not chain link, and does not disrupt our access to the beach,” said Councilmember Terry Gaasterland.
Residents and the California Coastal Commission sued NCTD after they tried to move ahead with their fencing project, which is now stalled. At the same time, the agency seeks confirmation of its full authority over the railway from the federal Surface Transportation Board.
The federal board has yet to issue a decision or facilitate mediation between the parties. STB spokesperson Mike Booth said the time it takes to address these matters could vary, making it difficult to determine a timeline in this case.
“[The board] could request more information or require them to go into mediation,” Booth said.
Ultimately, the SANDAG board will have the final say regarding which crossing option to proceed. Input from the city, Del Mar residents, as well as NCTD, will be taken into consideration, DeVaux said.
“We will need multi-agency collaboration moving forward,” DeVaux said. “We need to build something that the city, SANDAG and NCTD all agree on, and the city is a very important part of that.”
NCTD representative Colleen Windsor said the district was an “active participant” in the Coastal Connections Study and that they have provided their feedback on the trail and crossing options.
“NCTD will continue its review of proposed designs as they advance through the process,” Windsor said.