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The San Diego Association of Governments, which is the lead agency on the regional Coastal Rail Trail project, must weigh in before any changes can be made to the trail alignment, including in Cardiff. Photo by Tony Cagala
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SANDAG yet to weigh in on Cardiff Rail Trail

ENCINITAS — Cardiff-by-the-Sea residents celebrated an apparent victory last week when the City Council voted to withdraw support of the current alignment of the Cardiff Rail Trail and endorse a trail alignment along Coast Highway 101.

But city and regional officials warned that the council’s vote is not the final decider as to whether the trail plans will change.

The San Diego Association of Governments, (SANDAG), which is the lead agency on the regional Coastal Rail Trail project, must weigh in before any changes can be made to the trail alignment, including in Cardiff, and approval of the proposed change is not a mere formality, officials said.

The change would mean reversing course after the agency has expended thousands of dollars on planning and design work on the previous iteration of the plan, as well as an indeterminate delay to the project. It could also imperil nearly $1 million in state grant money the project has received.

“It is not a done deal as far as SANDAG is concerned,” said Encinitas Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer, who was the only council member to vote against the change at the March 30 meeting. Shaffer represents Encinitas on the regional transportation board. “There are a lot of factors that have to be weighed.”

Officials from the agency echoed Shaffer’s statement.

“We need to get direction from our own decision makers,” said Muggs Stoll, SANDAG’s planning director. “From a regional level, this is a substantial change and a very different project than the one we have worked on for several months. Because of that, I would tell you that our decision makers need to weigh in.”

The regional Coastal Rail Trail is a planned 44-mile network of trails that stretch from Oceanside to downtown San Diego. SANDAG is overseeing planning for the entire project, with local jurisdictions responsible for construction and maintenance of their respective sections.

The Encinitas City Council originally voted in May 2015 to support the development of the trail along the east side of the rail tracks along San Elijo Avenue and an undeveloped section of the coastal plain that is a popular walking and jogging path.

But the plans came under intense fire from residents, who mounted a massive letter writing and opposition campaign, which culminated in the council’s vote to reverse course on March 30.

Stoll said the agency tries to work in concert with communities, which is why they hosted community meetings, placed 2,000 door hangers and purchased advertisements in two newspapers leading up to the council’s first decision.

One advantage the agency believed the San Elijo alignment provided was that more Cardiff residents could access it, Stoll said.

“We don’t really know all the benefits of the Coast Highway alignment because we haven’t studied it as much as the current alignment,” Stoll said.

Between the approval and the subsequent reversal, SANDAG officials have completed a substantial amount of planning and design of the previous alignment, reaching a milestone known as 30-percent completion. Thirty percent completion is typically the threshold needed to obtain environmental and permitting approvals from local, state and federal agencies.

While SANDAG had done some work on the Coast Highway 101 alignment, officials acknowledge they are much further along with the San Elijo alignment because it was the one selected by the council last year.

Stoll would not speculate as to whether SANDAG could change course and remain on the current timeline, which has construction set to begin in the winter of 2017, or how long it would take for SANDAG to get the Coast Highway alignment designs to 30-percent completion.

But for now, he said, all work on the project has come to a halt.

“For right now, we are not progressing any further on the project alignment until we get some direction,” Stoll said.

Stoll said the agency must also report to the California Transportation Commission, which awarded SANDAG a near-$1 million grant for the project. The regional agency was preparing to ask the state for a 20-month extension for the grant even before the potential alignment change.

“If we were to change the alignment, we would have to make them aware of the change, and they would have to make a determination as to whether the project qualifies,” Stoll said.

Opponents of the San Elijo alignment said they were confident that SANDAG would not ignore the council’s vote, citing meetings with SANDAG during which officials said they had no desire to build something that the community didn’t want.

“It won’t be that SANDAG is going to want to build something on the east side without city council authorization,” said Sean Wright, one of the leaders of the “No Rail Trail” movement. “Rather, SANDAG will say either ‘OK, we understand the council changed its mind, and even though we spent $700,000 already, we’re willing to apply the remaining funds to the 101 alignment,’ or SANDAG will say ‘We’re tired of you folks in Encinitas and we’re going to keep our money and spend it somewhere else.’

“I would say the latter scenario is less likely because eventually they do want to have the 44 mile bike trail through San Diego County,” Wright said.

Mayor Kristin Gaspar, who was opposed to the San Elijo alignment, said she also doesn’t believe that SANDAG would approve the previous alignment, but is concerned that they could cancel the entire project.

“I think the likely scenario they will consider is whether they want to move forward with the project at all,” Gaspar said. “But the likelihood of them moving forward on the east side is slim.”

Gaspar said she is also worried that the council’s indecision on the project — which could cost SANDAG hundreds of thousands of dollars — could affect future dealings with the regional agency.

“In the future, they could think twice before moving forward with projects in our city,” Gaspar said. “I know they are a professional organization, but at the same time they have expressed sincere frustration with the fact that the council made a decision, moved forward with it, and then changed its mind. I just hope that this doesn’t compromise our future ability to work together.”