Posted on June 8, 2022
New beach access measures proposed for the railroad right-of-way on the Del Mar bluffs are deepening the rift between the North County Transit District, the city and the California Coastal Commission.
The San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, is proposing a mile-long, bluff-top trail, a grade-level pedestrian crossing and a stairway to the beach in the next phase of Del Mar railroad stabilization work, which goes to the California Coastal Commission for approval this week.
Del Mar and the transit district have been tussling for years over a safety fence the railroad wants to install on the bluffs. More recently, the Coastal Commission entered the fray, saying the barrier would impede public access, and that the project should require environmental mitigation.
The trail, crossing and stairway are proposed as mitigation for the loss of sand and recreational opportunities caused by building additional seawalls and other structures along the beach and bluffs, according to a Coastal Commission staff report.
“Over a 30-year life, the proposed project seawalls would occupy 49,566 square feet of beach area that would otherwise be available to the public for coastal access and recreation,” the report states. The mitigation projects would help to compensate the public for the loss of that area, which is a little less than the size of a high school football field, along with the loss of bluff material held back by the seawalls that otherwise would be added to the beach.
Beach access has long been an issue along the tracks in Del Mar, where the only legal pedestrian crossing is at Coast Boulevard between Powerhouse Park and Seagrove Park. People cross the tracks illegally south of there in many places, an issue that’s become more contentious now that the transit district plans to install a safety fence along the right-of-way.
An average of 12 lives are lost each year due to trespassing on the tracks in San Diego County, according to NCTD. Many of those deaths are suicides, which a fence also could help to reduce. However, the fence is a separate issue from the bluff stabilization projects.
NCTD Executive Director Matt Tucker said Tuesday he opposes the mitigation projects, which increase costs and construction time for work necessary to keep the train tracks safe.
“Attempting to impose unrelated and unfunded conditions on a railroad maintenance and safety project that is critical to the stability of our region’s infrastructure is an overreach of authority by the Coastal Commission,” Tucker said in an email. “It underscores the reasons NCTD filed the petition with the Surface Transportation Board and the need for the STB to issue its decision.”
The transit district filed its petition with the federal board Aug. 28, 2020, asking for sole jurisdiction over the bluff projects on the basis that the work is essential for the safety of interstate rail transportation.
The petition was later suspended through Dec. 31, 2021, at the district’s request during unsuccessful attempts to reach an agreement on the fence with Del Mar and the Coastal Commission. NCTD renewed its petition in January, and so far the board has not announced a decision.
Coastal erosion is a constant threat to the 1.6-mile stretch of railroad tracks, which runs along the edge of 50- to 70-foot-tall bluffs with a history of landslides and slope failures.
A series of phased stabilization efforts began in 1996. The work consists primarily of installing underground concrete-and-steel soldier piles, drainage ditches, seawalls and retaining walls.
The next phase of construction, the fifth, will include the installation of more soldier piles, seawalls with backfill, drainage improvements and grading of the slopes, according to plans that the San Diego Association of Governments will present to the Coastal Commission next week. SANDAG, the county’s regional planning agency, is the lead agency on NCTD construction projects.
The proposed bluff-top trail between Seagrove Park and Fourth Street, a pedestrian rail crossing near Seventh or 11th street, and a beach “accessway,” probably stairs, somewhere between Seventh and 11th streets, are recent additions to the stabilization projects added by SANDAG.
More work is needed on the specific locations and designs. The area being studied is covered with an informal patchwork of trails that people have used since the railroad was built.
Conceptual plans are being developed for the newly added beach access projects, states the Coastal Commission’s staff report. Several options will be identified for each one, but all three probably will be connected as a single trail, crossing and stairway to the beach.
Construction of the bluff stabilization structures and related projects is expected to begin in October 2026 and finish in April 2028 for a total cost of $8.7 million, according to the staff report.
SANDAG and NCTD also are working on long-term plans to relocate the railroad tracks away from the bluffs, probably in a tunnel bored beneath the city of Del Mar. The stabilization projects are designed to safeguard the tracks in place until that happens, which can take decades.
Relocating the railway also would allow space for a second set of tracks in Del Mar, where the right-of-way includes no room in the present location. Long-term plans call for the entire coastal rail route to have at least two sets of tracks to meet the expected increase in rail traffic.
SANDAG’s presentation at the Coastal Commission meeting June 8 at the Hilton San Diego Del Mar also will include an after-the-fact application for approval of emergency repairs made over the past year after a century-old concrete seawall failed in Del Mar on Feb. 28, 2021.
That work included the installation of 18 cast-in-drilled-holes soldier piles at the top of the bluff, with tie-back anchors and beams, and the construction of a 290-foot-long wood lagging seawall, 5 to 13 feet tall at beach level, held in place by 53 soldier piles.
Commission staffers have recommended approval of the projects with conditions.
Among the conditions are that the improvements such as the seawalls, also known as shoreline armoring, must be removed at the end of the structures’ expected 30-year life. After that, the shoreline is to be restored to a more natural condition.