ENCINITAS — Residents are voicing frustration over the North County Transit District’s installation of a fence along the rail corridor in northwest Leucadia and calling for city officials to establish a pedestrian rail crossing to mitigate safety hazards.
In mid-April, the transit district will continue building a wooden post and cable railing fence (42 inches in height) along the railroad in Encinitas that will run from approximately Encinitas Boulevard in the south all the way north to La Costa Avenue, a roughly 2.3-mile stretch. The fence is set to be completed at the end of July and will cost approximately $2.35 million in funding, according to an agency spokesperson.
The purpose of the new boundary is to reduce the number of fatalities, accidents and train service disruptions attributable to trespassing over the railroad, the NCTD said. Encinitas, along with Del Mar and Oceanside, is one of the top three cities for railway trespassing in North County.
But locals say that by installing the fence, the regional transit agency is creating a barrier of access dividing Leucadians located on the east side of the railroad from the beaches, businesses, and residences on the west side, and vice versa.
While it is unlawful to cross the railroad tracks, locals have done so regularly for decades to avoid having to walk north along Vulcan Avenue to La Costa or south to Leucadia Boulevard just to get to the shoreline.
Longtime Leucadia resident Rob Fleener said that a boundary installed along the railroad corridor means locals now have two alternatives to circumvent the tracks, both equally undesirable — pedestrians can either walk along Vulcan Avenue, where there isn’t a substantial amount of room in either lane, or drive.
“People on both sides of the tracks cross every day to go to businesses restaurants, schools, etc,” Fleener said. “The notion that our community now pays the cost and we no longer have access to that without getting in our car and driving several miles seems like such a bad idea.”
During a March 23 special meeting, the Encinitas City Council considered funding allocation for different capital improvement projects brought up by city staff, numerous residents expressed their concern with the rail fence, including Carol Heil, a leader of the community organization Now Leucadia.
Heil argued that the fence’s construction underscores the city’s need to prioritize building a rail crossing for pedestrians in northwest Leucadia.
“With this rail fence being completed, there will be no way to cross the tracks for what is the longest stretch of fenced rail in Encinitas,” Heil said. “There will be no access to Vulcan on one side, no access to Streetscape on the other side without getting in a car.
“What the community wants is a rail crossing and solution to the situation on Vulcan. Where is the will of the city council and staff to get this done? When you put up that fence and you can’t cross over to the beaches it’ll be like looking at San Francisco from your jail cell in Alcatraz — you can see it, you just can’t get to it.”
Longtime local Desire Smith said she fears that more than just posing an inconvenience to Leucadians, the fence could endanger residents walking along the highly trafficked Vulcan Avenue.
“This fence puts us in a precarious situation,” Smith said. “Now we have to go down to either Leucadia Boulevard or La Costa and there’s no sidewalk along Vulcan, I mean how do you get there safely? Having to meander through the streets and there’s no straight line, like how are families supposed to do that with children in tow?”
Demands For a Rail Crossing
At the meeting, Mayor Catherine Blakespear acknowledged that it would likely be several years before the city could even start construction on a rail crossing in Leucadia.
In 2021, the City Council allocated $250,000 towards putting out a request for proposal, or RFP, to find a firm that could conduct conceptual planning and designs for a potential rail crossing. To date, the city is reviewing proposals for design analysis from five different vendors, city staff said.
However, once this analysis is conducted, there are still multiple regulatory hurdles that the city must overcome in order to get to the point of project development. In particular, Blakespear noted that any concept or design for a crossing would have to be reviewed and ultimately approved by the California Public Utilities Commission.
“I think it’s important to be clear about what the reality is, which is that it’ll take three years just for project design and the creation of a biddable plan,” Blakespear said. “Under the best of circumstances with this plan, it’s years away and that’s disappointing to some, and it’s even more disappointing to realize that the CPUC might reject this proposal altogether.”
But many residents feel as though the rail crossing’s slow progress has to do with the city failing to prioritize Leucadia’s infrastructure needs.
“I’ve lived in Leucadia for over 40 years, and what hasn’t changed is the lack of pedestrian safety on Vulcan,” said Brenna Fleener, in comments addressed to the council. “It’s disheartening and frustrating, and now all these years later it’s me and my parents still asking for rail crossings in northwest Leucadia.”
Numerous residents at the meeting, including Now Leucadia representative Diana Nuñez, expressed concern that the pedestrian safety issues in Leucadia will only be further exacerbated by an onset of recent development projects in Encinitas.
“Our corridor is experiencing the most development in all of the city corridors, we have a 48-unit single home complex going in up towards [Interstate 5], a 72-unit building on La Costa and Vulcan, and another developer is building a 30 room plus 90 unit apartment and village complex just south of the Alila Marea hotel,” Nuñez said. “These are beautiful projects but nowhere else in Encinitas do we have that amount of development. And then the infrastructure in the corridor is so lacking, it’s dangerous, we need to get across that railroad because now so many more people will be trying to cross with these new developments.”
“We have all of these developments coming into the city, but you have to be able to get around, you have to have the infrastructure in place so that when the developments come they do not crush the community we care about,” said Cory Martin at the special agenda meeting. “Please please re-prioritize Leucadia, prioritize a grade crossing — I implore you so that we can visit our businesses and other things on the other side of the tracks.”
Heil said she and other residents were disappointed to see the rail crossing project was not a Tier 1 item for funding on the city’s capital improvements agenda, which was posted in advance of the special agenda meeting.
“I feel like it was disheartening, we feel like they’re just not making this rail crossing a priority,” Heil said. “We’ve been fighting for this with our group for two years, the Leucadia community at large has been fighting for this for over 20 years, and we’re still not on Tier 1 of the CIP, still not a priority. This is one of the biggest needs in the entire coastal area, so yea we weren’t thrilled by how the council handled this. We’re being neglected — it’s that simple.”
“Our community is just extremely frustrated over this,” Nuñez said. “The new budget proposals came out for the CIP and again, Leucadia is not really on it, even though we pushed and pushed on this. I know that government moves slowly, but this is creeping. I mean, obviously, they realize there is a huge issue here, an urgent need for this rail crossing, but there doesn’t seem to be any push to solve it.”
Blakespear said that because the rail crossing project is not even in the conceptual analysis phase yet, it would be inappropriate for the city council to place the item on the first tier for general funding.
“There’s nothing to build, this isn’t even designed yet,” Blakespear said. “Yes, this is among our top priorities but we can’t put money into a project that’s uncertain. The CIP money is to spend on things that are needed and we can’t just put those funds towards an indefinite savings account.”
Blakespear expressed that even getting to the point of construction for a rail crossing will be a grueling and costly bureaucratic process, involving numerous state, local, and regional bodies.
In order for a rail crossing to be approved, CPUC, NCTD, SANDAG and other entities will need to rubberstamp the project, Blakespear said, while emphasizing that such regulatory approval is far from a guarantee. Additionally, the project’s cost could be in the tens of millions, and the city, already operating on a severely constrained budget, will need to procure state and/or federal grants before construction could begin, Blakespear said.
The mayor explained that installing a rail crossing is bureaucratically challenging for Encinitas because the council made the decision last year to pursue an at-grade crossing project for Leucadia, which entails significantly more regulatory scrutiny than a separated grade crossing.
An at-grade crossing is an intersection where a local road bisects a highway at the same elevation, whereas a grade-separated interchange is one where the road crosses over or under the highway.
At-grade crossings are significantly less expensive and are easier to build than grade-separated intersections, according to Councilman Tony Kranz, which means the city could potentially build multiple such crossings in Leucadia, not just one.
Additionally, Kranz said that the council has seen the empirical success of at-grade crossings in facilitating pedestrian traffic in other cities, including San Clemente and Santa Barbara.
However, Blakespear and Kranz both emphasized that getting approval from state and local agencies for an at-grade crossing is significantly more challenging than it would be for a separated intersection. The state utility commission, in particular, has traditionally disfavored at-grade crossings because they want to reduce any possible conflicts between trains and pedestrians.
“We want at-grade like they have in San Clemente, that will allow us to build more crossings and it doesn’t cost as much…but what this comes down to is that there’s a lot of pushback from regulators, it’s one thing or another,” said Kranz. “It’s all taking longer than it should because we have to do safety studies, we have to justify this in safety terms and be able to say to the CPUC here’s the data to show why this works.”
While conducting safety studies, meeting with potential vendors, and dealing with regulatory hurdles may not be the kind of progress that Leucadians are hoping to see, Blakespear expressed that it’s important to be realistic given the city’s constrained resources, asking residents to be patient with the process.
“Honestly, I don’t know what will happen with this process, for now, I mean this is a longshot because the information that I’ve consistently heard from professionals in regulatory agencies is that it’s disfavored to have an at-grade crossing,” Blakespear said. “There’s a reality of physical constraints. The reality is that working in the rail corridor is expensive, time-consuming, etc. What we’re doing isn’t nothing, things are happening at the city level, but yeah, to all of us, I think it’s disappointing that this doesn’t happen faster, and I wish it did.”