U.S. transportation secretary rides train on eroding Del Mar bluffs. ‘It just doesn’t meet today’s needs’

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (right) rides the bluff at Del Mar.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (right) rides the bluff at Del Mar with (from left) transit planner Danny Veeh, state Sen. Toni Atkins and Congressman Mike Levin aboard an NCTD Coaster on Tuesday, Oct. 25.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Pete Buttigieg meets with local officials studying ways to reroute the railroad off fragile Del Mar bluffs


U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg joined local elected and transit agency officials for a 30-minute train ride Tuesday, Oct. 25, that took them over the eroding coastal bluffs in Del Mar.

Mayors, civil engineers and others each got a few minutes during the ride to talk to the transportation secretary about the importance of safeguarding and eventually rerouting the tracks, which are threatened by rising sea levels in several places along the 350-mile LOSSAN corridor from San Diego to San Luis Obispo.

A new urgency emerged Sept. 30, when Metrolink and Amtrak both suspended passenger service between San Diego and Orange counties after the tracks shifted again on an old landslide near San Clemente just north of Camp Pendleton. Repairs are underway, but passenger service between San Diego and Orange counties is expected to remain unavailable through at least mid-December.

“Whether we are talking about passenger movement or we’re talking about supply chains, we need fluid movement up and down the coast,” Buttigieg said in a news conference after the ride.

“What we see here is really a two-fold set of issues ... restoring things like Amtrak passenger rail, so that we can be back to where we were, but also recognizing that our goal shouldn’t just be to restore to what we’ve inherited,” he said. “It should be to have improved routes, faster routes, and routes that are going to make sense a century from now. We are currently living with alignments that in some cases were set up more than a century ago, and it just doesn’t meet today’s needs.”

Buttigieg’s train trip underscores the importance of railroad access to San Diego, which depends entirely on the single route that connects it with Los Angeles and the rest of the United States.

The LOSSAN corridor is the second-busiest passenger route in the country. Annual ridership is nearly 3 million on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner trains and 5 million on Coaster and Metrolink trains. Freight trains on the route carry $1 billion in goods annually, according to a 2021 report by state Secretary of Transportation David S. Kim. Also, the Defense Department has identified it as part of the Strategic Rail Corridor network because of its access to Camp Pendleton and the Port of San Diego.

So far, more than two-thirds of the 60-mile coastal rail route in San Diego has been double-tracked, which reduces delays, increases speeds and shortens trip times. However, there’s no room for a second set of tracks at Del Mar or San Clemente, which causes bottlenecks.

Service disruptions also have occurred at Del Mar, where studies show erosion causes the bluffs to recede at the average rate of 6 inches annually.

Regional officials have been working for years on preliminary plans to reroute the 1.7 miles of tracks in Del Mar away from the coast and into a tunnel beneath the small city. This year the state awarded $300 million to the San Diego Association of Governments to further that plan, although construction is unfunded, and it probably would take a decade or longer and is still years from beginning.

Costs to build the Del Mar tunnel have been estimated at $4 billion or more. A combination of funding sources will be needed, but it’s likely much of the money could come from the Federal Railroad Administration, which is an agency within the Department of Transportation.

Buttigieg was in San Diego to attend the American Trucking Association’s annual Management Conference and Exhibition, where he delivered the keynote message on ways President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is improving roads, bridges, ports and more.

Biden’s Infrastructure Law expands the Federal State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Program and increases funding for the program to an unprecedented $7.2 billion annually for the next five years.

The partnership program announced $233 million in funding in August for 11 projects in eight states, including up to $27.3 million to replace the 100-year-old San Luis Rey River railroad bridge in Oceanside. The new double-track concrete bridge will eliminate a 0.6-mile single-track bottleneck and add improvements such as a bike path, a pedestrian underpass and signals.

The transportation secretary made the train trip in part at the invitation of Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, who met him at the Old Town Train Station along with state Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, Solana Beach City Council member Jewel Edson, and officials from the San Diego Association of Governments, North County Transit District and others.

“He was very interested and asked good questions,” said Edson, a former Solana Beach mayor and the chair of the NCTD board, said after her turn to meet with Buttigieg. They talked about the next phase of Del Mar bluff stabilization projects and the need to eventually reroute the tracks there.

Levin thanked Atkins for her help in obtaining funding to reroute the tracks at Del Mar.

“But we still need the money for construction, “ Levin said. “We are going to need billions of dollars over time, it won’t happen overnight, but it’s going to happen, and I think the secretary just saw, in particular here in Del Mar, why this funding is so critical.”