CA: Del Mar opposes fencing train tracks to keep people off unstable bluffs

Nov. 26, 2018
Del Mar has only one place in town, near Seagrove Park, where people can legally cross the tracks to get to the beach. As a result, the bluffs south of the park are crisscrossed with "goat trails" where people cross the tracks illegally.

Nov. 26--A proposal to install fencing along the railroad tracks in Del Mar has residents saying don't fence us out.

Del Mar has only one place in town, near Seagrove Park, where people can legally cross the tracks to get to the beach.

As a result, the bluffs south of the park are crisscrossed with "goat trails" where people cross the tracks illegally. They could be ticketed for trespassing, but the law is rarely enforced.

Use of the unauthorized trails contributes to the bluffs' erosion, which occurs naturally and has threatened the coastal tracks in Del Mar for years.

A bluff collapse in August came too close for comfort, and North County Transit District halted all trains for hours until inspectors determined it was safe to resume traffic.

Soon afterward, the transit district announced it would fence the railroad right-of-way to keep people off the bluffs and allow vegetation to grow as part of ongoing stabilization efforts.

Beachgoers were not happy.

"I have used the access path at 7th Street for close to 40 years to safely reach the beach to surf my local breaks between 6th and 8th streets," Stratford Court resident Daniel Jensvold wrote in a letter to the Del Mar City Council.

"This is the most critical issue facing the council," Jensvold said. "Our beach access is the reason we live here ... (and) a simplistic fencing proposal to satisfy safety and erosion' issues is totally unacceptable."

An NCTD safety chief was unavailable to discuss the issue on Tuesday, but Del Mar found hope in the district's recent announcement that before installing any fencing it would complete a feasibility study and consider other alternatives.

Mayor Dwight Worden said the city hopes to collaborate with the transit district on its study.

"I'd hate to see a fence," Worden said. "We may need to hire our own experts, do our own analysis and really stand our ground ... to make sure all the options for safety are covered and not just fencing."

Most of the recent Del Mar bluff collapses have occurred between 9th and 11th streets, which are popular places to cross the tracks.

NCTD has completed three separate bluff stabilization projects in Del Mar since 1998 at a total cost of about $5 million, according to a recent district newsletter. In some areas, that included the installation of concrete, steel-reinforced piles, 3 feet in diameter and 50 feet deep on the west side of the tracks to increase slope stability.

Other efforts included the installation of additional storm drains and underground pipes to better control stormwater runoff, and sensors to monitor ground movement.

Del Mar formed a committee 20 years ago to look at locations where legal pedestrian crossings to the beach could be added. They agreed on four possible locations: the Torrey Pines State Reserve bridge at the city's southern border, Eighth Street, 11th Street, and 29th Street on the northern border.

Those suggestions were presented to NCTD at the time, said Councilman Dave Druker, who served on the committee. But the transit district said the city would have to pay for any new crossings, and the city didn't have the money, which ended the discussion.

Legal crossings are expensive. Federal transit authorities prefer overpasses or underpasses which carry huge planning and construction costs. At-grade crossings are considered less safe and are rarely approved.

"This has been an issue that has concerned me for 20 years," Druker said Monday. "It turns out that 11th Street is the most crossed area illegally on the track in the entire county. That's a spot where we want to have a crossing."

A better solution would be to move the entire southern Del Mar segment of the railroad track east of the bluff, another idea that has been talked about for years.

That probably would require tunneling under portions of the city, with years of environmental studies followed by lengthy construction. Current estimates of the total costs are between $2.5 billion and $3.5 billion.

The alternate route is being considered by the area's regional planning agency, the San Diego Association of Governments, as part of long-term efforts to double-track the entire San Diego County coastal railway. More than half the route has been completed, and Del Mar could be the last piece with a single set of tracks because of the narrow bluff-top passage.

Del Mar's 2.5-mile section of track carries 45 passenger trains and six freight trains a day, said Councilman Terry Sinnott, and those numbers are increasing.

"We can't move the tracks immediately, but we should be moving the tracks eventually," Sinnott said.

The Del Mar section will become more of a bottleneck as train traffic increases, he said.

"We can't rely on a single track segment that goes on an unstable bluff that is eroding more rapidly than ever," Sinnott said. "From a transportation standpoint, we need to begin working right now to solve that problem."

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