REGION — Plans to relocate the railroad tracks off the deteriorating Del Mar bluffs and into tunnels underneath the city can move ahead after the San Diego Association of Governments accepted $300 million in state funds on Friday, jumpstarting the region’s most significant and long-awaited transportation project.
The funds will allow SANDAG to move forward with preliminary engineering and environmental studies to relocate a crucial portion of the 351-mile LOSSAN (Los Angeles-San Luis Obispo-San Diego) Rail Corridor. Plans for the relocation have been in the works for years due to sea level rise and bluff failure concerns.
SANDAG proposes moving the tracks off the bluffs and into a tunneling project spanning the entire city of Del Mar from Jimmy Durante Boulevard to the intersection of Portofino Drive and Carmel Valley Road.
Agency leaders unanimously agreed to accept the funding, secured thanks to State Sen. Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and allocated through the state’s Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program for their 2023 budget on Friday. Regional leaders celebrated the milestone.
“This is a momentous day for the region and the state of California,” said Danny Veeh, SANDAG’s senior planner of Active Transportation and Rail. “The time is upon us to realize a long-term solution with the realignment of the corridor.”
Officials are in the midst of conceptual work for the tunnels. They plan to kick off preliminary engineering work and environmental studies in 2023, followed by final design and securing the right of way in 2026 and construction in 2028. Completion of the relocated rail is anticipated in 2035.
The state funds are enough to cover the project’s next two phases, the total cost of which is estimated between $2 billion and $2.5 billion. According to SANDAG staff, the allocation puts the region in a competitive position to receive even more funds from the federal government for the project.
“They’re gonna be used as a match to get as much money out of Washington as possible,” Veeh said.
SANDAG has narrowed five tunnel realignment alternatives to two — one approximately 1,000 feet east of the current tracks along Camino Del Mar, referred to as the West Alignment, and the East Alignment through Crest Canyon over 2,000 feet east of the existing tracks.
Both alternatives would feature tunnels running beneath residences in Del Mar. SANDAG is currently completing a planning study with sub-consultants who have constructed other tunnels throughout the country. Future work will involve looking at how to minimize impacts on residents near the tunnel ports.
Del Mar City Councilwoman Terry Gaasterland said this is one of the residents’ main concerns about the project moving forward.
“The universal message that I’m hearing is gratitude … a sense and spirit of cooperation and a genuine desire that this relocation happen. There is also a sense of hesitancy, concern and worry about trains going underneath a home. I’m hopeful that there will be technologies used that make sure this tunnel has little impact as it goes under homes,” Gaasterland said.
Veeh said SANDAG is preparing to launch an education campaign to teach people what to expect about tunnels and address any misinformation.
Some community members and officials questioned the long-term feasibility of the West Alignment tunnel option along Camino Del Mar, noting that the tracks will remain close to the water and bluffs. Others were confused why SANDAG ruled out a previous alternative located much farther east in alignment with Interstate 5.
Changes to the bluff faces are not uncommon in North County, but incidents near the rail line in Del Mar, such as the 2021 collapse in early 2021, have sparked concerns. The bluffs are estimated to be receding between four and six inches per year in Del Mar, according to Veeh.
The planned tunneling project connects to the Sorrento Valley Double Track project to the south, extending into the city of San Diego.
The LOSSAN Corridor transports around 8 million passengers and $1 billion in goods annually.