3/17/16: Reconsidering the Rail Trail

At last night’s Encinitas City Council meeting, I requested that the council reconsider its approval of the Coastal Rail Trail plan through Cardiff because of the changed realities since we first supported the project last May.

I continue to love the idea of a charming, winding path that gives Encinitas families a place to walk and bike, safely separated from speeding cars. But this isn’t turning out to be that project. As a result, I am now actively opposed to the current SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments) proposal for Cardiff.

Cardiff Rail Corridor

The Cardiff Rail Corridor (pictured yesterday) has a unique and delicate ecology that should be respected and reflected in any ultimate Coastal Rail Trail planning.

Being an ethical leader means standing up to make hard decisions and addressing the changes that are required when new information arises. When I supported this concept 10 months ago, I assumed there would be a collaborative approach to trail design, a quiet, at-grade crossing at Montgomery for $1.5 million, and a trail that respected our natural Cardiff environment.

My position has changed because of new information about the costs, the lack of certainty about the crossing, the failure to solicit local feedback in creating the trail’s design and the likelihood of a poorly executed project that doesn’t preserve our local environment. I wish these things were apparent to me before, but unfortunately they were not.

Here’s why I’m asking the City Council to consider withdrawing city support for SANDAG’s current proposed rail trail plan:

Blocking residents’ coastal access
The installation of a fence has always been a major downside of the rail trail project. Neither NCTD (North County Transit District) nor SANDAG is willing to commit to hold off on the fence requirement until a legal and safe crossing is built. The city can’t assure state regulatory approval and hasn’t approved funding for a crossing. We can’t risk a long gap in coastal access created by a regulatory snarl. It’s very possible that the timing of multiple projects could result in the rail corridor being fenced without a legal crossing.

I asked SANDAG and NCTD to put in writing (through a Memorandum of Understanding or at minimum a non-binding Letter of Intent) that both agencies would do everything possible to ensure that residents weren’t blocked from the beach by a fence before the crossing was installed. They wouldn’t entertain the idea, citing liability concerns.

Lack of residents’ involvement
SANDAG held three public meetings about the rail trail, one each in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Since then, there hasn’t been any official, organized way to incorporate feedback from locals on the design, feel, look, placement or aesthetic of the trail. No surveys, no renderings, no workshops, no collaborative changes based on residents’ concerns. Despite my persistent complaints about this, nothing has changed. The process lacks responsiveness and is not designed to ensure a quality local project.

No corridor planning
Making hasty, piecemeal decisions about major citywide transportation networks is not good planning. What happens in Cardiff affects what happens in Leucadia. We need legitimate, robust and goal-oriented master planning based on local residents’ priorities to determine what we as a community really want to happen with our entire rail corridor from our southern border at Solana Beach to our northern Carlsbad border. If we proceed now with this project east of the tracks, we’re essentially telling Leucadia residents where their rail trail will be.

Destruction of the natural feel
Many residents have expressed strong, negative feedback about SANDAG’s current rail trail plan. I listen to my community and believe the sentiment is not only widespread, but valid. Some dismiss rail trail critics as a bunch of NIMBYs; I don’t believe that. Previously supportive groups like Friends of the Rail Trail and Bike/Walk Encinitas also have serious concerns based on the now clearer realities.

The proposal has been called a “concrete highway,” and that may be right. I saw a few renderings this week for the first time, and the proposal is as stark and lacking in charm as one can imagine. SANDAG declined to release the pictures, saying they are only drafts.

Encinitas Road Diagram 5

Above are two photos from SANDAG’s website of other “trails” they’ve built in the county. The proposed one in Cardiff is significantly worse actually, as it’s simply ten-feet of concrete with a line running down the middle plus two feet of decomposed granite on either side. There aren’t any softening features, such as benches, lighting, or re-landscaping. Neither of the above two pictures looks like they would fit in Cardiff’s rail corridor. I envisioned a charming ribbon of a trail, winding with a small footprint through the sandstone and respecting the environment. This plan doesn’t do that.

The financial domino effect
We recently found out that an at-grade crossing at Montgomery couldn’t be entirely “quiet” because of the required wayside train horn, and that an under-crossing (which would eliminate the horn) would cost $7 million instead of the currently planned $1.5 million for the at-grade crossing.

For me, that was the last straw.

An under-crossing would have an enormous negative financial impact, and that would have a domino effect on other city capital projects which could end up postponed unless the council wanted to raise revenue — something I don’t support. This crossing project isn’t the only financial commitment we have, and I’m not willing to let it jump to the front of the line.

The community needs to be involved in choosing the type of crossing, and it’s premature for us to rush into a commitment to a crossing because we’re trying to beat a rail-trail deadline. We need to solicit real feedback on the crossing choices from local residents.

The big picture on governance
I don’t believe it’s right for city government to say to the community, “just trust us; don’t worry, it’s going to be great.” There’s too much to lose if we get this wrong. That’s not what people expect from their local elected officials.

If the city hasn’t done big-picture planning and the council doesn’t have clarity on what the community’s priorities are, then your interests are not well protected. I don’t believe we have adequate safeguards to ensure that this project fits into our community. The city needs to control the details of this project based on residents’ input, not on plans created by a regional agency with out-of-area designers.

I want us to have more paths and trails that encourage biking and walking for pleasure and purpose in our city. I’ve been sleepless over my decision to ask the City Council to reconsider because of my core commitment to this value. I really wanted this project to be successful, and to further that goal, but it’s now clear that isn’t possible.

Let’s take things in the proper order – when we’ve protected coastal access for Cardiff, designed a community-supported plan that is appropriately scaled to the natural corridor, and prioritized our funding, then we can roll forward with an appropriate rail trail that will serve us for years to come.

I will continue to work on your behalf to achieve that goal.

In continuing service,
Catherine Blakespear Signature