NCTD and Del Mar split over rail realignment money

The Coaster crosses the San Dieguito River bridge next to the fairgrounds in Del Mar in January 2020.
(Union-Tribune)

Transit District says 100-year-old railroad bridge must be replaced before tracks can be rerouted through tunnel

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Del Mar and the North County Transit District are at odds over the best way to spend $300 million the state has allocated for work needed to reroute the rails around a trouble spot on the fragile coastal bluffs.

The transit district recently sent a letter to the San Diego Association of Governments asking for some of the grant money to be used to finish the long-planned San Dieguito to Sorrento Valley double-track project just north of the bluffs.

“The rail realignment off the Del Mar bluffs can only be successful if this time-sensitive project is completed first,” states the Dec. 16 letter from the NCTD board to SANDAG.

Del Mar officials disagree. They want SANDAG to use the entire $300 million to pursue construction of the tunnel and to look elsewhere for the San Dieguito double-track money.

“The city of Del Mar expresses strong opposition to the board’s request that SANDAG pursue alternative uses of the $300 million,” Del Mar Councilmember Terry Gaasterland said on a Zoom call at the transit district’s recent board meeting.

The grant money was designated for design, engineering and environmental work needed to prepare the tunnel project for construction, she said.

“This funding is a major step towards achieving the environmental, financial, feasibility, and design objectives for the rail realignment project,” said Del Mar City Councilmember Dwight Worden, then serving as mayor, in a letter to NCTD in October.

“As you well know, the railroad tracks pose a significant threat to the bluffs, structures, commuters, and the public, and this crucial funding will advance the project’s timeline for being shovel ready and competitive for more critically needed funding,” Worden said.

The San Dieguito realignment project is already “shovel ready,” transit officials said. It would add a second set of rails for about one mile and replace the century-old bridge with a wider, double-tracked bridge just north of the proposed tunnel, which also would be double-tracked.

An optional piece of the San Dieguito segment is a proposed platform at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, so people could ride the train to events there such as the annual horse races and the San Diego County Fair.

About three-quarters of the 60-mile train corridor between downtown San Diego and the Orange County border has been double-tracked so far. The second set of tracks allows more frequent, faster trains and makes it easier for people to use mass transit.

Environmental work was completed in 2015 for the San Dieguito double-track project, which is ready for construction when money becomes available. Construction costs are estimated at $152 million for the tracks and the bridge, and an additional $82 million for the fairgrounds platform.

The new railroad bridge will be eight feet higher than the existing bridge and wide enough to allow two sets of tracks. Most of the engineering and design work has been done, and the bridge is scheduled for completion in 2025.

The higher bridge is essential to prevent the tracks from being overwhelmed by floodwaters, especially with the expected rising sea levels, and to stop floodwater from entering the tunnel, said NCTD Executive Director Matt Tucker.

“You can’t do the realignment until the San Dieguito project has been done,” Tucker said. “That’s all this item is. This is not a big grab or a steal away from anyone.”

Construction of the tunnel could cost more than $4 billion and will take until at least 2035 to complete, SANDAG has said.

This is not the first time Del Mar has fought with the transit district. The city and the transit district have been battling for several years over a safety fence NCTD wants to build along the tracks atop the bluffs.

Del Mar residents say the proposed fence would restrict their access to the beach, obstruct their views of the ocean and lower coastal property values. The transit district says the fence would prevent trespassing on the railroad right-of-way and save lives. Most of the rail corridor already is fenced.

Negotiations have essentially reached a standstill pending the outcome of a petition the transit district has filed with the federal Surface Transportation Board. If approved, the petition would give the district the authority to build the fence without any permits or other approvals from the city or the state.

SANDAG and NCTD have been working more than 20 years on a series of Del Mar bluff stabilization projects including seawalls, pilings and drainage structures to protect the tracks on the eroding bluffs until an alternate route can be built.

The $300 million grant from the state’s Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program was announced July 1 as part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s $308 billion state budget.

Officials said at the time that the money would allow SANDAG to complete the preliminary engineering and environmental documents for the realignment project and to start the partially funded final design phase.

Money from the grant also was to be used to form an executive task force to help find funds for construction.


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