State Coastal Commission says Del Mar train tracks need to move inland

Workers repair erosion caused by a rainstorm in late November along the railroad tracks in Del Mar.
(Union-Tribune)

Regional transportation officials say railroad tunnel is decades in the future

The state’s Coastal Commission signed off last week on emergency repairs made in December to the Del Mar bluffs, but the commissioners emphasized the need to move the railroad tracks away from the crumbling seaside location.

“I feel like nature is communicating in a very direct way that time is of the essence,” said Commissioner Donne Brownsey at the Wednesday, Aug. 12, online meeting.

The Coastal Commission oversees all coastal development in California, from seawalls to high-rise hotels, and generally reviews projects long before construction begins. It approved an “after-the-fact consistency certification” Wednesday, Aug. 12, for the emergency work to safeguard the bluff-top tracks.

The repairs were needed after a Thanksgiving weekend storm sent rainwater over the tracks and caused significant erosion along the railroad bed near 13th and 15th streets in Del Mar, an area where the tracks are about 40 feet above the beach. Train traffic was temporarily halted for inspections and then continued at limited speeds until the repairs, primarily the construction of new retaining walls, were completed about Dec. 15.

The San Diego Regional Association of Governments, a regional planning agency, applied retroactively for the commission to approve the emergency repairs.

The track has been on the bluffs in Del Mar for 100 years.

Coastal erosion eats away the edge of the bluffs at an average rate of 6 inches a year, studies show. However, sudden collapses, called episodic events, can occur at any time and bring the tracks ever closer to the beach.

“It is definitely a clear and present danger,” said Commissioner Linda Escalante. “It is urgent to move this thing landward.”

Construction is underway on the fourth phase of a six-phase effort to stabilize the tracks where they are. However, SANDAG’s long-term plan calls for rebuilding the tracks more than a mile inland on a new route through tunnels that will bypass the bluffs.

Construction costs for the tunnel route have been estimated at $3 billion or more, and presently no money is available.

“It takes 10 to 20 years to fund a giant project like a tunnel,” said Bruce Smith, a principal engineer at SANDAG. “It’s a long-term effort, and it will take many years.”

The fifth and sixth phases of bluff stabilization projects are expected to be completed in the next four or five years, and are designed to keep the tracks safe where they are until 2050. Much of the planning has been done, but so far there is no money for construction.

“The key to meeting these deadlines is funding,” said commission Executive Director Jack Ainsworth. “There is going to be competition for that money across the United States. This is just the tip of the iceberg up and down this state with regards to rail lines. It is a huge, huge problem.”

The apparent increasing rate of sea-level rise has added urgency to the search for solutions.

Among the recent suggestions is one to build a railroad bridge over the beach that would allow bluffs to retreat without disturbing the tracks, the SANDAG official said. Environmental studies are needed to determine whether that would be practical.

“We are looking at all reasonable options,” Smith said.

The train tracks in Del Mar are a vital link in the only rail corridor between San Diego and Los Angeles and the rest of the United States.

Until this year’s pandemic curtailed travel, the route carried 7.6 million passengers a year and $1 billion in goods and services.

Train traffic on the route is expected to roughly double by 2030, according to SANDAG.

— Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune


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