Del Mar seeks to move tracks from bluff more quickly than planned

Del Mar City Council members, concerned about environmental, safety and economic problems posed by the railway tracks that run atop the city's oceanfront bluffs, want to speed up regional planning for moving the tracks, while at the same time looking at opportunities for a safe pedestrian rail crossing.

Mayor Terry Sinnott and Councilman Dwight Worden brought the issue before their council colleagues at the Tuesday, Jan. 17 council meeting. After discussing the issue, the council agreed to let Sinnott and Worden start gathering information about the issue, and talking to representatives of neighboring cities and the regional planning agency, the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG.

The goal is to move up the timetable for a project to move the tracks off the bluff, while at the same time pursuing the interim step of creating a safe, legal pedestrian crossing from Del Mar to the beach, said council members.

Currently, SANDAG's plans call for moving the tracks off the bluff by 2050, more than three decades in the future, and the estimated price tag for the project is $1.3 billion.

"The hope is we can develop a strong case for moving this up in various people's minds," said Sinnott, by demonstrating how moving the tracks will benefit the entire region. "If it's just little Del Mar saying we want this off the bluff we won't get anywhere."

Sinnott and Worden drafted a report for the council which was included with Tuesday's council agenda. Among the concerns shared by the council are the dangers to those crossing the tracks without a designated, safely designed crossing, and the costs of reinforcing the tracks in the face of ongoing bluff erosion. 

Sinnott said transportation agencies are working on double-tracking the rail line between Oceanside and San Diego to increase efficiency, but the bluff won't support a second track, so Del Mar represents a bottleneck along the rail route.

Worden conceded that the moving the tracks will take years, and probably won't happen during the current council's tenure, but is worth the effort.

"It will be long-term and cost a lot of money and be difficult, but it's hugely important to this community," said Worden. Each year, he said, about a dozen people die along the tracks between Oceanside and San Diego, either in accidents or suicides.

The only solutions to the hazard, he said, are very expensive grade separations, meaning an over- or underpass, or fencing off the rail line.

"That's the kind of conundrum that leaves you with the choice of killing people or blocking the coast, neither of which is acceptable. So let's get it off the bluff," Worden said.

Councilman Dave Druker said the next step would be a feasibility study to determine where the tracks could be moved. Past discussions, he said, have considered digging a tunnel under Camino Del Mar, or along Interstate 5, to re-route the rail lines.

As for the safety issue, he said transportation officials agree that the best way to make the rail line safe is grade separation along the entire route. That option was completed in Solana Beach, where the train tracks are now located below streets and sidewalks.

"No one is committing suicide in Solana Beach because you can't get to the track," Druker said.

Worden said after the meeting that he and Sinnott will gather available information about the issue, and then advocate with SANDAG for a feasibility study to consider which options for re-routing the tracks are feasible from an engineering standpoint, and also look at estimated costs.

Next would come environmental analysis of specific proposals and, finally, once a consensus is reached on the best option, officials would have to seek funding for the project. When viewed in light of the economic benefits provided to the region by the rail line, said Worden, the case for moving the tracks becomes more compelling.

Del Mar resident Frank Stonebanks told the council that he received a $500 ticket for crossing the tracks in August, and has since circulated a petition and created a Facebook page, advocating for both a safe, legal pedestrian crossing and exploring options for moving the track permanently off the bluff.

"I think it's going exactly in the right direction. We're completely supportive of what you've just outlined," Stonebanks said.

Worden and Sinnott plan to update the council as they move forward with their research and contacts with outside agencies.

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