Encinitas council supports putting rail trail east of the tracks

The Cardiff rail trail should go alongside San Elijo Avenue, instead of Coast Highway 101 to the west, the Encinitas City Council said last week by way of a 3-2 vote.

Consequently, the city and SANDAG, the agency overseeing the project, will soon start preliminary designs for the San Elijo Avenue alignment.

Residents in recent months have debated whether the Cardiff segment of the rail trail — a biking and walking path from Chesterfield Drive to downtown Encinitas — should run east or west of the train tracks.

At the council meeting, residents in favor of the San Elijo Avenue alternative said it would better connect Cardiff neighborhoods and businesses. Those opposed pointed out this option would require a fence in the near term, hindering coastal access.

Councilman Mark Muir, who voted against the motion, said the Cardiff community has voiced repeated concerns with rail trail fencing over the years. Similarly, Mayor Kristin Gaspar said the city should build the rail trail only when improvements that make it easier to cross the tracks are guaranteed to happen.

“Timing is everything,” Gaspar said.

Deputy Mayor Catherine Blakespear said the city will lose out on SANDAG grant dollars if it waits.

“I have no question that if we lose this opportunity, it won’t happen in our lifetime,” Blakespear said. She also stated young kids and their families would be more likely to use the rail trail if alongside San Elijo Avenue.

SANDAG, which has budgeted $5.1 million for the first segment of the rail trail, is scheduled to complete environmental review for the project in 2016. Construction is slated to begin the following year on the Cardiff segment.

Chris Carterette, an active transportation planner with SANDAG, said after the meeting: “SANDAG and its member agencies collaborate on projects like these, so a council vote is important in determining what alignment to pursue.”

Carterette also stated SANDAG and the city will coordinate on the preliminary engineering and environmental process for the San Elijo Avenue alignment.

Given that the San Elijo Avenue alternative requires fencing in the near term, councilmembers said this should be mitigated with infrastructure to bolster coastal access. On that note, the council earlier in the meeting gave direction to staff to work with transportation agencies to build an at-grade railroad crossing at Montgomery Avenue.

Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer said placing the rail trail next to San Elijo Avenue would strengthen the city’s case with the California Public Utilities Commission for an at-grading crossing. The commission, when examining whether to approve at-grade crossings, looks at whether they’re safe, necessary and would improve coastal access.

“I think we need to be doing both in parallel,” Shaffer said of the at-grade crossing and rail trail.

Under the council’s preferred alternative, most of the Cardiff section of the rail trail would go just west of San Elijo Avenue, along the dirt stretch. Between the rail trail and tracks, there would be a fence similar to the post-and-cable fence next to the Santa Fe Avenue undercrossing, according to city staff.

Resident Julie Thunder took issue with the San Elijo Avenue option, primarily because of the fencing.

“I don’t understand why you would take this on and fight the community and block our access,” Thunder said.

While the Highway 101 alternative does not propose a fence, the rail corridor will likely be fenced in the long term under North County Transit District plans that are independent of the rail trail, according to the staff report. On the flip side, the report states the San Elijo Avenue alternative could take away parking on the road.

Encinitas Chamber of Commerce CEO Bob Gattinella said the organization would rather see the rail trail on San Elijo Avenue, because the Highway 101 option calls for a lane reduction to make room for the rail trail.

SANDAG began eyeing Highway 101 for the rail trail a few months ago, when it was determined the San Elijo Avenue option would need retaining walls between Verdi Drive and Cornish Avenue, where the road narrows.

Because the road is narrow from Santa Fe Drive to D Street, the rail trail would run on San Elijo Avenue, instead of alongside it. This “on roadway” portion would have bike lanes and “sharrows” — markings reminding bicyclists and drivers to share the road.

Plans state the rail trail will eventually run from Cardiff to Leucadia, linking up with the trail in Solana Beach and Carlsbad.

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