New beach access measures proposed for the railroad right-of-way on the Del Mar bluffs deepen 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, cliff-top trail, grade-level walkway and stairway to the beach in the next phase of work of the Del Mar Railroad Stabilization, which goes to the California Coastal Commission for approval this week.
Del Mar and the Transit District have been fighting for years over a guard rail the railroad wants to put up on the bluffs. More recently, the Coast Commission entered the fray, saying the barrier would prevent public access and that the project should require environmental mitigation measures.
The pathway, crossing and stairway are proposed as a mitigation for the loss of sand and recreational opportunities caused by the construction of additional seawalls and other structures along the beach and cliffs, according to a staff report from the Coastal Commission.
“Over a 30-year lifespan, the proposed project seawalls would occupy 49,566 square feet of beach that would otherwise be accessible to the public for coastal access and recreation,” the report states. Mitigation projects would help compensate the public for the loss of this area, which is somewhat less than the size of a high school football field, as well as the loss of bluff material retained by the levees that would otherwise would be added to the range.
Beach access has long been a problem along the Del Mar lanes, where the only legal crosswalk is on Coast Boulevard between Powerhouse Park and Seagrove Park. People are illegally crossing the tracks south of there at many places, an issue that has become more contentious now that the Transit District plans to install security fencing along the right-of-way.
On average, 12 lives are lost each year due to trespassing on San Diego County lanes, according to NCTD. Many of these deaths are suicides, which a fence could also help reduce. However, closing is a separate issue from bluff stabilization projects.
NCTD Executive Director Matt Tucker said on Tuesday he opposes mitigation projects, which increase the cost and construction time of work needed to keep train tracks safe.
“Attempting to impose untied and unfunded conditions on a railway maintenance and safety project that is essential to the stability of our region’s infrastructure is an excess of authority on the part of the Commission coastal,” Tucker said in an email. “This underscores NCTD’s reasons for filing the petition with the Surface Transportation Board and the need for the STB to render its decision.”
The Transit District filed its petition with the Federal Council on August 28, 2020, seeking exclusive jurisdiction over the bluff projects on the grounds that the work is essential to safe interstate railroading.
The petition was later suspended until December 31, 2021, at the request of the district during failed 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 hug the edge of 50- to 70-foot-high cliffs with a history of landslides and slope failures.
A series of phased stabilization efforts began in 1996. The work primarily consists of installing underground concrete and steel piles, drainage ditches, levees and retaining walls.
The next phase of construction, the fifth, will include the installation of more soldier piles, levees with embankment, drainage improvements and slope grading, according to plans the Association of San Diego Governments will present to the Coastal Commission next week. SANDAG, the county’s regional planning agency, is the lead agency for NCTD construction projects.
The proposed cliff-top trail between Seagrove Park and Fourth Street, a pedestrian walkway near Seventh or Eleventh Street, and a “pathway” to the beach, probably stairs, somewhere between Seventh and 11th Street, are recent additions to the stabilization projects added by SANDAG.
More work is needed on specific locations and designs. The study area is covered with an informal patchwork of trails that people have used since the construction of the railway.
Concept plans are being developed for new beach access projects, the Coast Commission staff report says. Several options will be identified for each, but all three will likely be connected in a single path, passage and stairway to the beach.
Construction of the cliff stabilization structures and related projects is expected to begin in October 2026 and end in April 2028 at a total cost of $8.7 million, according to the staff report.
SANDAG and NCTD are also working on long-term plans to move the railroad tracks away from the cliffs, likely into a bored tunnel under the city of Del Mar. The stabilization projects are designed to protect the tracks in place until that to happen, which can take decades.
Moving the rail line would also make room for a second set of tracks in Del Mar, where the right-of-way does not include any room at the current location. Long-term plans call for the entire coastal rail route to have at least two sets of tracks to accommodate the expected increase in rail traffic.
SANDAG’s presentation at the June 8 Coastal Commission meeting at the Hilton San Diego Del Mar will also include an after-the-fact request for approval of emergency repairs made in the past year after the failure of a century-old concrete seawall in Del Mar on February 12. 28, 2021.
This work included the installation of 18 soldier piles sunk into holes drilled at the top of the cliff, complete with anchors and tie beams, and the construction of a 290-foot-long timber seawall, 5 to 13 feet high. at beach level, held in place by 53 piles of soldiers.
Commission staff recommended approval of the projects with conditions.
Among the conditions are that improvements such as levees, also known as shoreline armouring, must be removed at the end of the structures’ expected 30-year lifespan. After that, the shore should be restored to a more natural state.