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Get rid of the rail line? One Del Mar councilmember says it should be an option

A Coaster train heads north in Del Mar, where a councilmember wants to study the long-term viability of the train.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Owner of the tracks calls report ‘intentionally misleading, explicitly inaccurate’

A proposal by Del Mar City Councilmember Dan Quirk to analyze “all options, including eventual termination” for the coastal railroad in San Diego County failed to get much traction Monday, Jan. 10.

The City Council majority agreed to dial back Quirk’s proposed resolution and instead focus on the need to move the tracks off the eroding seaside bluffs. A rewritten version will be considered at a future meeting.

“This issue has been very important to me,” said Quirk. He and Councilmember Tracy Martinez presented a report to show that train ridership is low and declining, a proposed rerouting of the tracks would cost billions of dollars, and advances in electric and autonomic vehicles are rapidly overtaking rail technology.

“To analyze and better understand the long-term viability of the train would help the regional community and decision makers to determine if the train’s benefits exceed its cost and conflicts, up and down the route,” states the report.

“‘No train’ is one of the options we believe the community needs to be thoroughly vetting,” it says.

Councilmember Dave Druker sharply criticized Quirk’s proposal and questioned the information in the report.

“You have created a biased report that belies your willingness to subvert our effort to get the train off the bluff and makes Del Mar look foolish,” Druker said.

North County Transit District owns the tracks and operates the Coaster commuter train between Oceanside and San Diego. The transit district has been working with the San Diego Association of Governments, the area’s regional planning agency, for years to map out a replacement route for the 1.7-mile Del Mar segment. The most likely option is a tunnel dug beneath the small city at a cost of several billion dollars.

The Coaster commuter service is an essential part of San Diego County’s long-term transportation plan, Druker said. Even if NCTD did cease its Coaster service, the district would still be required to maintain the tracks for Amtrak passenger and BNSF freight trains.

BNSF and Amtrak have federal rights to operate on the track that are not subject to local or state requirements. Also, the tracks are part of the Strategic Rail Corridor Network that supports national defense and connects San Diego naval bases with the rest of the United States.

NCTD Executive Director Matt Tucker called into the Zoom meeting and said Quirk’s report contains “a shocking amount of misinformation.”

“The information can be characterized as intentionally misleading, explicitly inaccurate and sometimes even salacious,” said Tucker, who also submitted his comments in writing to the City Council.

“It is clearly salacious to state that NCTD is providing an ‘illegal gift of public funds’ to (freight carrier) BNSF,” Tucker said. “If there is evidence to support that statement, I request that the city provide such evidence or retract the statement.”

Quirk did not respond to the request.

“It is intentionally misleading to represent that ridership performance during the global pandemic that caused an unprecedented disruption of the entire economy is indicative of future rider demand or in any way illustrative of the viability of the service,” Tucker said.

Tucker also said the report was misleading to say that Coaster service unfairly serves a large percentage of high-income riders and that autonomous and zero-emission vehicles are likely “lift all boats” by becoming widely available in the near future. Instead, electric vehicles are expensive and available only to people with higher incomes, and the vehicles themselves are heavily subsidized.

“Based on market research performed by Hedges & Company in 2018, the average Tesla owner is a 54-year-old white man making over $140,000 annually with no children,” Tucker said in his letter. Also, Tesla Inc. has received $2.5 billion in subsidies and $465 million in government loans since 2007.

Tucker and the City Council said no city staff members worked on the report, which was presented as part of the meeting’s agenda.

Councilmember Terry Gaasterland said she would support the resolution, but only if the “explicit biases” were eliminated from it. She suggested deleting several sentences about low ridership on the Coaster and Amtrak, and taxpayer funding for BNSF.

Gaasterland agreed to take over for Martinez to rewrite the resolution.

Mayor Dwight Worden said he would not support the revised document.

“Our priority is not to get rid of the train but to get it off the bluffs,” Worden said, and questions about the viability of the train are “hurting our credibility.”

The entire county has adopted a long-term regional transportation plan and “rail is a key piece of that,” he said.

Quirk said he would agree to deleting parts of the resolution and emphasizing the need to investigate the tunnel route.

“This says let’s be open-minded to all options,” Quirk said.

Quirk’s report says a public trail for pedestrians and cyclists would be the “highest and best use” of the railroad right-of-way.

“Such a trail could also create billions of dollars in economic and lifestyle benefits,” the report states.

Tucker responded that the conversion of rail tracks to trails does not always translate to economic benefits. The city or someone would have to buy the property from NCTD and build the trail, which would be expensive.


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