DEL MAR – In Del Mar, the topic of trains and rail systems has become an almost daily conversation. From bluff stabilization to SANDAG’s $160 billion transportation plan to NCTD’s controversial fencing project, trains have been integrated into the fabric of Del Mar.
At the city’s helm, Mayor Dwight Worden and Councilmember Dan Quirk have expressed starkly different perspectives on the region’s rail systems, specifically Coaster and Pacific Surfliner, and whether or not they are essential to San Diego County’s future.
The disagreement between the two leaders has been ongoing for months, with both Worden and Quirk writing their own op-ed pieces in The Sandpiper, an online community journal covering Del Mar.
Worden, a former lawyer and an active environmentalist, maintains that rail is essential to San Diego because the county cannot meet its mandatory state, federal and local climate goals without it. Worden also argues that rail will help solve traffic congestion on roadways.
Quirk, who has a background in finance and data analytics, emphasizes that not all rail is bad, however, each rail system needs to be evaluated against the data. Considering all-time low ridership, Quirk believes the hundreds of billions of dollars that are being put into Coaster and Surfliner are not justified.
In 2019, a SANDAG report showed the Coaster had the lowest ridership of the region’s five rail lines and Coaster ridership on average has decreased over the past five years. Quirk also points to NCTD’s quarterly reports (2017, 2018) that show years of declining ridership on both Coaster and Surfliner rail systems prior to the pandemic.
“When I look at the ridership numbers I’m asking the question is the train even worth saving at this point?” Quirk told ABC 10.publicationid_4702_27904
Regarding low ridership, Worden points to the new SANDAG transportation plan, which aims to increase public transit ridership from 2% to 13% by creating new rail lines and increasing the number of trains on existing lines. More public transit will help meet state mandated climate goals.
“The difference is huge,” Worden said. “That’s enough to meet our greenhouse gas goals, that’s enough to mean we don’t have to keep widening freeways and roadways because we will have removed enough people to avoid congestion.”
Quirk, who is the city’s representative on the NCTD board, said that environmental and climate goals can be reached without these particular rail lines, which have caused public backlash when it comes to rail-related projects, such as fencing.
“Also, here in Del Mar and Leucadia and Oceanside, where there’ve also been fencing projects, the non-financial costs are maybe even more important to a lot of people in the community,” Quirk said. “I believe that that the various government agencies have been spinning a lie and a story and it’s been told well. This idea that trains are nostalgic and they’re cool, it’s a good story, but I think that it’s the wrong story. I think that there’s a huge amount of negatives and costs, and hopefully, I’m helping the community and the region to see those a little bit.”
Quirk also addressed Worden’s argument that “a new mile of freeway costs about $62 million. A new mile of rail costs only $1-2 million,” pointing out that the new recently completed Mid-Coast Trolley Extension project from SANDAG added 11 miles and cost roughly $2.1 billion, or about $190 million per mile.
Quirk referred to the California High-Speed Rail Project that could cost nearly $100 billion to complete a 500-mile system or $200 million per mile.
Worden said he was referring to national average costs of building new rail, adding that “all transit is subsidized… but automobiles and trucks get by far the biggest subsidy when one considers costs to build and maintain roads, freeways, bridges, tunnels, on and off-ramps etc.; costs of public and private land set aside for cars and trucks (parking, maintenance, travel ways, service stations, garages, junkyards, etc.); right of way acquisition costs to buy the land for roadways; costs of tax and other government subsidies for oil and gas exploration.”
When it comes to climate goals, Quirk said that these goals can instead be achieved with the rapid advances of clean electric vehicles and self-driving technology.
“All of the major auto manufacturers have announced huge investments in kind of converting or creating new facilities for electric. So the argument that trains are green… but you’re not solving climate change if you’re only focused on a tiny, tiny segment of the transportation market,” Quirk said.
Worden argues that cities need all of it — increases to public transit, electric vehicles and self-driving technology — to reach climate action goals and local governments simply can’t afford to pick and choose.
“We need all of it. We need the rail system… and we need more electric vehicles and we need hydrogen vehicles. And the SANDAG plan shows that until we get to almost 2050, we won’t totally meet our goals, even doing all of that,” Worden said. “So to me, it’s just not comprehensive to pull out a piece of that and say, well, let’s just talk about electric cars or let’s just talk about the train; you’ve got to talk about the whole integrated system to meet our climate goals.”
But the two city leaders’ public rail disputes in the Sandpiper aren’t expected to subside any time soon. In fact, it’s not the first time they have publicly aired their grievances.
Worden published a letter in the Del Mar newsletter back in November calling out Quirk for a warning he received from NCTD regarding his alleged violations of the Brown Act.
Quirk defended his actions regarding his comments to the NCTD board in an email to constituents.
“Not only are my actions not a violation of state law as Dwight (Worden) suggests…they are essential to the operation of good and transparent democratic government,” Quirk wrote. “The NCTD’s accusation against me is an attempt to use intimidating legal tactics to shut down legitimate free speech and public debate.
“I see it as an attempt to deflect from the attention I bring to the Coaster’s incredible failures as a transportation service, as well as the environmental destruction and risks it presents to Del Mar with bluff decapitation, fences, and an incredibly risky and massive multi-billion-dollar construction proposal to blast a tunnel through the Del Mar hillside, directly underneath people’s homes.”
Quirk went on to list some of the city’s achievements since joining the council in 2020, such as starting three utility undergrounding projects, “vigorous efforts” to delay the fencing project along the bluffs and “rapidly improving city budget and financial position.”
But just two weeks later, The Sandpiper published a line item rebuttal of Quirk’s stated accomplishments, “Fact Check: Quirk’s Long List of Claimed Achievements,” refuting nearly all of Quirk’s claims to varying degrees.
For example, in response to Quirk’s defense of the fencing project, the Sandpiper wrote in part: “Quirk’s ‘vigorous efforts’ to date have resulted only in a warning letter that continued violations of the Brown Act, with respect to his NCTD Board service may result in referral to the Attorney General or the Fair Political Practices Commission. And on Nov. 18, NCTD took actions to expedite its fencing plans.”