More money allocated to secure tracks on Del Mar bluffs

A Coaster train crosses the bluffs in Del Mar.
(Union-Tribune)

Levin announces $11.5 million for next phase of railroad reinforcement

With an additional $11.6 million secured last month, a transportation official said Tuesday, June 2, that most of the money needed has been obtained for the next phase of construction to safeguard the railroad tracks on the eroding Del Mar bluffs.

Phase 5 of the bluff stabilization project is expected to cost about $66 million in all, said an official at the San Diego Association of Governments, the area’s regional planning agency. The money will come from a combination of federal, state and local sources.

State Sen. Toni Atkins announced a year ago the allocation of $6.1 million a year ago for the planning and design of Phase 5. The $11.6 million announced last week by U.S. Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, will be used for construction.

“The rail service through Del Mar supports countless jobs and economic activity throughout the region, so it’s critical that we stabilize the coastal bluffs under these tracks,” Levin said in a news release.

The track is the only railway link between San Diego and Los Angeles and all points north and east of Los Angeles. It’s used primarily by Coaster commuter trains, Amtrak passenger trains, and BNSF freight trains. The section of track between San Diego and the Orange County border is owned and maintained by North County Transit District.

“This critical corridor serves commuters, our military, and the economy — moving $1 billion of goods each year,” said Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, chairman of the SANDAG board of directors.

The first three phases of bluff stabilization were completed in 2003, 2007 and 2009, and a fourth phase began last month and is expected to continue through the summer.

“We got off to a slow start,” said John Haggerty, SANDAG’s director of engineering and construction. “It started right in the middle of COVID-19, so there were a lot of questions being asked. It took a long time to get up to speed.”

However, the COVID-19 crisis brought at least one advantage for the project, Haggerty said.

Most of the work underway is right along the tracks, so all activities must stop when a train goes by. However, because so few people are riding Coaster and Amtrak trains their schedule has been temporarily reduced, and as a result construction is interrupted less frequently.

The fifth phase is on track to begin in about 18 months and take about two years to complete.

That phase will include the installation of more of the steel-and-concrete columns, called soldier piles, that hold back the earth beneath the tracks. More than 200 of the piles were installed along the seaward edge of the tracks in the first three phases. Also planned are more work on the erosion control and drainage structures at the top of the bluff.

A sixth phase of work, still several more years in the future, will focus on building structures such as seawalls to protect the base of the bluffs from erosion. That work is expected to cost between $50 million and $60 million, and so far no money has been allocated for it.

“The final plan is to make sure that the bluffs don’t recede,” for at least the next 30 years, Haggerty said.

Eventually, SANDAG intends to move the 1.7 miles of track in Del Mar to a new inland route below ground and away from the bluffs. Preliminary studies have identified several possible routes, and more work is needed to identify the best location.


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