Encinitas reverses course on rail trail route

A polarizing plan to build the Cardiff rail trail alongside San Elijo Avenue has been scrapped.

On March 30, the Encinitas City Council voted 4-1 to nix the San Elijo alignment, and instead the council will explore putting the rail trail west of the tracks on Coast Highway 101.

The transit agency SANDAG in recent months has been designing the rail trail, a path designed for walkers and casual cyclists. Meanwhile, dueling online campaigns set off a communitywide debate over the project.

Councilwoman Catherine Blakespear, Deputy Mayor Lisa Shaffer and Councilman Tony Kranz last May approved placing the rail trail on San Elijo Avenue, rather than Coast Highway 101. But in a surprise move two weeks ago, Blakespear requested that the council reconsider the route.

At the March 30 meeting, Blakespear said her change of heart was due to recent renderings showing a large concrete path replacing the dirt trails west of San Elijo Avenue. She was also disappointed to learn that a proposed pedestrian rail crossing at Montgomery Avenue probably can’t attain “quiet zone” status, meaning more train horn noise in the area.

The Montgomery crossing was prioritized last fall because the San Elijo Avenue alignment would trigger a fence, hampering beach access that’s popular, though illegal.

“What happened is that a picture that was fuzzy became clear over these past several months,” Blakespear said.

But Mayor Kristin Gaspar and Councilman Mark Muir said the drawbacks of the San Elijo Avenue proposal have been apparent all along. They opposed it last May.

Muir said he’s long been against the plan due to “fatal flaws,” including hindering people from getting to and from the beach. He noted SANDAG has already spent $700,000 on pre-construction engineering work on the project.

It’s unclear if the city would have to pay back those funds.

SANDAG had dedicated $5.1 million toward the project. A SANDAG representative said it would be up to the SANDAG board to decide whether the $5.1 million could potentially be shifted to the Highway 101 alternative.

Deputy Mayor Lisa Shaffer, the lone vote against the motion, still favored placing the rail trail on San Elijo Avenue to make the road safer for bikers and pedestrians. She said the project design is only partially finished, so there’s potential for tinkering with the route to alleviate environmental impacts.

“If we can find a way to keep the dirt trails and accommodate the bikes and pedestrians, that’s the best solution,” she said.

Whether or not the rail trail goes on San Elijo Avenue, North County Transit District is eventually planning to fence the corridor, she added.

Thirty public speakers weighed in on the Cardiff rail trail, which is part of a larger regional plan. SANDAG envisions the path one day going from downtown San Diego to Oceanside.

Wearing black “Keep It Natural” T-Shirts, opponents said placing the rail trail on Highway 101 would preserve the environment alongside San Elijo Avenue.

“We don’t want to be LA; we don’t want to be Orange County,” Erin McPeak said. “We want to have and preserve what is here.”

Joe Berry said the council and SANDAG are to blame for a lackluster outreach campaign before the council vote last May. He said the city should have collected more public input before making a decision.

Last November, an anti-rail trail petition at norailtrail.com filled the email inboxes of councilmembers, transit officials and newspaper editors, reigniting debate. In response, backers of the plan started yesrailtrail.com.

Proponents of putting the rail trail east of the tracks said it would better serve families who are likely to be too intimidated to ride on Highway 101.

Jodie Hubbard said Cardiff needs a path that accommodates “all people, ages and abilities,” adding it would connect Cardiff shops, the Swami’s undercrossing and public facilities.

Judy Berlfein said change is coming to the rail corridor regardless of the rail trail, citing imminent North County Transit District fencing and a drainage culvert that will impact the undeveloped land. She added backing the San Elijo Avenue route and Montgomery Avenue crossing would mean staying ahead of what’s coming.

Councilman Tony Kranz voted in favor of the motion, but stressed the council should commit to improving San Elijo Avenue. To illustrate how dangerous the road is, he played a video that he shot with his GoPro while biking along the street. Kranz said there’s no room on San Elijo Avenue for cyclists or pedestrians, and that riding there requires constantly dodging cars.

The council motion also included setting up a working group of residents to inform a rail corridor vision for the entire city, and to move forward with plans to build the Montgomery Avenue crossing.

Copyright © 2017, Encinitas Advocate
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