DEL MAR — If you attended the 2018 San Diego County Fair — or live near the Del Mar Fairgrounds where the event is held — and thought traffic was unusually bad this year, you’re not alone.
“For river systems, the term hundred-year flood is generally expressed as flow rate rather than defining how often it occurs,” Solana Beach Councilwoman Jewel Edson said at a July 10 meeting. “A hundred-year flood refers to the severity of the flood.
“During the final week of the fair the traffic experienced by our surrounding neighborhoods was the vehicular equivalent of a hundred-year flood,” she added. “The traffic management afforded by the fairgrounds was ineffective at best, and had a life-threatening emergency been experienced by a resident or visitor in one of the affected neighborhoods I’m not confident that the first responders could have reached them.”
“Something broke this year that has not broken in years,” Del Mar Councilman Dave Druker said after a presentation by fairgrounds officials at the July 16 meeting. “It was just horrible.
“I just want to make sure that it doesn’t continue to break into the future,” he added. “You need to figure this out if it breaks again.”
Katie Mueller, fairgrounds deputy general manager, said a combination of factors caused a spike in traffic during the final week of the fair, which ended July 4.
Attendance ranged from 35,555 on opening day to 82,418 on closing day, with a daily average of 60,047. There were peaks and valleys throughout the 26-day run, with 32 percent of total attendance during the last seven days.
“A lot of those peaks occur at the end of the fair, which is very, very typical,” Mueller
said. “There’s an urgency to attend an event because it’s a limited period of time and people start to realize (they’ve) got to get to the fair because it’s almost over.”
Also not helping congestion was a soccer tournament at the polo fields from June 29 through July 2, during which about 930 more cars were parked per day.
Add to that increased commuter traffic, construction on Interstate 5, phone apps that route motorists through neighborhoods, weather that attracts people to nearby beaches and a loss of 1,735 parking spaces as a result of wetlands conversion.
Despite all that, Mueller said the fairgrounds is doing everything in its control to help alleviate the problems.
“Traffic doesn’t just create concerns in your local community,” she said. “It creates problems for us operating the fair.”
She said it delays the workforce and impacts attendance because people might think twice about coming back.
“We don’t want people to experience horrible traffic,” she said. “So, it’s an important issue to everyone. … We take it very seriously.”
Mueller said a traffic plan is approved annually by a registered state traffic engineer and the cities of Del Mar and San Diego. Personnel are trained and state certified. There is also daily oversight and a centralized dispatch center to address immediate communications with first responders.
A representative from the Sheriff’s Department said a plan is in place to create an opening that allows an ambulance, fire truck or law enforcement vehicle to get in and out.
“We have it planned out,” he said. “We don’t want to have somebody expire because of our lack of preparation and planning.”
To address traffic congestion, promotions such as discounted or free admission aren’t offered during the last week of the fair.
Use of public transportation is also promoted but unfortunately, Mueller said, ridership is down.
“We are open to ideas to incentivize people to use public transit,” she added.
Possible solutions for next year include prepaid parking to decrease backups at the entrance,
using city eblasts to let residents know when highly attended events are scheduled so they can plan accordingly and asking the county for traffic relief funding.
Mueller said there are also plans to work with Surf Cup so a major soccer tournament isn’t scheduled during the last week of the fair.
In the long term, she added, in 2023 the California Coastal Commission will discuss whether an additional third of the east overflow lot should be restored to wetlands, eliminating 1,450 more spaces, or the ability to park 2,900 cars daily during the fair.
“Another loss of parking would be absolutely detrimental,” she said. “We do care about the issue and we’re listening and we’d love to find solutions.
“It’s not just a single entity’s role,” Mueller added. “It’s all of our role and it’s something that we have to work on collectively as a community because we are all part of the same community. … We’re all on the same team in this.”
Del Mar Mayor Dwight Worden agreed.
“It was frustrating to a lot of people,” he said. “We’re never going to make the traffic totally disappear, but I think there are ways we can collectively improve it.”
Edson asked her staff to examine some of the causes and present Solana Beach council members with possible solutions.