“To our south is the beginning of two miles of a railroad track that runs right along the very top of this coastal bluff,” Del Mar City Councilmember Terry Gaasterland said.
She is pointing out the dramatic ocean view from a bluff that has grabbed so many headlines recently.
“A big collapse could happen anywhere along this bluff at any moment in time,” she said. “That’s our problem right now.”
The coastal bluff is getting major repair work done because irrigation water from Del Mar homes, the weak sandy stone, and the constant battering from the ocean are eating away at the cliffs. That puts the bluff-top train track at risk.
The latest stopgap repair project will cost $ 68 million to shore up the crumbling cliffs, which once deposited a freight train onto the beach below in 1941.
The threat is serious enough that the California Coastal Commission permitted the construction of seawalls, something the regulatory body rarely does.
“That bluff stabilization project is going to bury 49,000 square feet of current open sandy beach,” Gaasterland said. “And it’s going to do it in a way, that at high tide, when the tide meets the seawalls, there’s no beach left.”
Huge pilings will be driven deep into the side of the bluff to shore up the track’s foundation because maintaining the rail line is important to a lot of people.
The Los Angeles to San Diego tracks serve some 2 million people a year, making it the second busiest urban rail corridor in the nation.
The trains also help soften the region’s carbon footprint.
“Our Coaster line is the region’s most effective reducer of vehicle miles traveled,” said Chris Orlando, North County Transit District's communication chief. “So, each Coaster passenger is more than 26 vehicle miles reduced, so, it is a really effective way to keep folks off the road and in transit.”
The freight trains that travel along the coast also keep 24,000 semi-trucks off local highways.
“Making sure the resiliency of that infrastructure remains constant is really important to the San Diego region,” he said.
That’s why another plan — moving the train tracks inland — is so appealing.
But there are challenges there too.
Moving the track requires a tunnel under Del Mar, a project with a price tag close to $3 billion.
“Is it a cost worth paying? And the answer is absolutely yes,” said Hasan Ikhrata, CEO of the San Diego Association of Government (SANDAG).
Preserving the rail corridor through Del Mar helps meet SANDAG’s commitment to mass transit.
“It is all about making our transit a viable option for people to use,” Ikhrata said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re going to force people out of their car. It doesn’t mean that everybody is going to leave their car. But if you provide a decent option. Maybe 10% of our residents will use it and therefore will free capacity on the highway system.”
An allocation of $300 million in the recently-signed state budget will help pay for crucial environmental work and design plans to move the tracks.
Ikhrata hopes that leads to a shovel-ready project in just a couple of years.
But $300 million falls far short of what could be a $3 billion price tag.
Local officials hope to tap the bipartisan federal infrastructure law for a huge chunk of funding. Rep. Mike Levin (D-Oceanside) said the recently passed bipartisan federal infrastructure law was designed for projects like this.
“There are a couple of big buckets of money,” he said. “One for resilience and another for transit. And my team is going to work very closely with all of our stakeholders at the state and federal level to make sure we are aligned and we are working towards trying to get this project done for all the residents of our region.”
The eroding bluffs have already forced the rail corridor to shut down intermittently because of the threat of collapse.
“Every month that you shut it down is roughly a $100 million economic impact to our greater region,” Levin said.
The combination of pressure for a permanent solution and the chance to get a lot of the money for the project from the federal government raises hope that the much-talked-about project might actually happen.
If the tracks move, Gaasterland said the region will get a lot.
“We get double tracking on a corridor that’s poised to grow,” she said. “We get safe freight and passenger conveyance along tracks that are not on a crumbling bluff anymore. So, we get security and we get solidity.”