The future of the Cardiff rail trail is in question.
At the request of Councilwoman Catherine Blakespear on March 16, the Encinitas City Council will reconsider its controversial decision to put the rail trail between the train tracks and San Elijo Avenue in Cardiff.
Blakespear was part of a council majority last spring that approved the rail trail — a biking and walking path that’s designed to appeal to casual cyclists and families. Her about-face at the March 16 council meeting opens the door for potentially moving the project west onto Coast Highway 101 or nixing it altogether.
“We supported a concept 10 months ago, and in that 10 months, new information has come to light that makes it so I no longer support that plan,” Blakespear said in an interview before the council meeting.
Blakespear said her past support for the rail trail largely hinged on a planned pedestrian crossing at Montgomery Avenue receiving “quiet zone” status. But the city recently found out such a designation is unlikely.
The council has pushed for a Montgomery Avenue crossing in light of the rail trail triggering a fence, which would hinder popular — albeit illegal — beach access. Without a quiet zone, an at-grade Montgomery Avenue crossing could increase train horn blasts in the area.
Seeing recent rail trail renderings also gave Blakespear pause. She said they show wide concrete paths replacing undeveloped land just west of San Elijo Avenue. The plans are evidence that SANDAG — the regional transit agency in charge of the rail trail — hasn’t taken community feedback into account, she stated.
“It’s so far from a project that would fit in Cardiff,” Blakespear said of the renderings.
Blakespear, Councilman Tony Kranz and Deputy Mayor Lisa Shaffer originally voted in favor of putting the rail trail east of the tracks, rather than on Coast Highway 101. At that time, they stated this route would better serve Cardiff neighborhoods and get people out of their cars.
Mayor Kristin Gaspar and Councilman Mark Muir have repeatedly opposed the plan, arguing it’s unwanted and would hurt beach access.
Gaspar during the March 16 meeting said she’ll work with City Manager Karen Brust to put reconsideration of the rail trail on the agenda as soon as possible, given that SANDAG has already spent around $600,000 on pre-construction work.
As per Blakespear’s request, the council will also take a closer look at the Highway 101 alternative, see how the rail trail fits in with citywide rail corridor plans and set up a working group to get more public input.
Shaffer, the city’s representative on the SANDAG board, reiterated her support for the current rail trail alignment when reached over the phone before the council meeting.
She said that North County Transit District stated on March 14 it’s open to building the fence next to the tracks. That configuration, if it pans out, would allow the rail trail to run alongside San Elijo Avenue, reducing environmental impacts.
“It would allow you to have both a paved path on the road, while having the dirt path the way it is now,” Shaffer said. “That seems like a good compromise to me, one that’s at least worth exploring.”
Also, Shaffer said NCTD is on record saying it’s going to fence the Cardiff rail corridor in five to 10 years, regardless of the rail trail. Given that, she said it makes sense to pursue both the rail trail and Montgomery at-grade crossing. If the crossing quiet zone doesn’t work out, the city could look at wayside horns — directionally angled speakers — as an alternative, Shaffer added.
SANDAG has pledged $5.1 million toward the rail trail, and the city would pay any additional costs. Colleen Windsor, communications director with SANDAG, said she can’t say what SANDAG would do if the council votes in favor of relocating or terminating the rail trail.
“That would be speculative at this point,” Windsor said.
The Cardiff rail trail, which would go from Chesterfield Drive to downtown Encinitas, is just one piece of a regional puzzle. SANDAG has called for the rail trail to one day run from San Diego to Oceanside.
In November, an anti-rail trail petition at norailtrail.com flooded the email inboxes of councilmembers, transit officials and newspaper editors, reigniting debate over the matter. Not long after, supporters of the rail trail started yesrailtrail.com to counter what they said was inaccurate information from the “no” crowd.
Mike Verdu of yesrailtrail.com said in an email that he’s disappointed to hear the news.
“A lot of us want a path for walking and biking on the east side of the tracks. However, I know there are some big questions that need to be answered about the current project, including the plan for noise mitigation around the at-grade crossing.”
He continued: “I hope this winds up being a step towards a new and better plan rather than the end of the trail project. The community needs an accessible trail as well as safe and legal access to the beach and town.”
Rich Risner of norailtrail.com said Blakespear’s action “shows leadership.”
Risner said he’s open to the Coast Highway 101 option because there are fewer neighborhood and environmental drawbacks. His biggest issue with the rail trail is so much concrete being poured over the natural landscape.
“There’s not much undeveloped space left along the coast,” Risner said.