Special message about the rail corridor.

I’m glad the City Council is planning to discuss the plans for the SANDAG Coastal Rail Trail segment through Cardiff in conjunction with an update on the rail double-tracking project and redesign of the Chesterfield Drive interchange, tentatively on March 30. The City and SANDAG have been working on these projects for years, with studies of a regional bicycle network and studies of rail alignment and crossings dating back at least 15 years. Let’s keep working to come together around a plan based on community values, public safety, fiscal responsibility, and facts. I don’t know what the right plan is, because there is still too much that is unknown. I hope we can take the time to understand the options in a calm, well-reasoned manner.
The discussion tends to mix a number of intertwined issues. It helps if we untangle them and consider each issue separately. The key issues, as I understand them are:
  • Making San Elijo Avenue safer for cyclists and pedestrians to provide connectivity within Cardiff, and between Cardiff and the rest of Encinitas.
  • Being able to continue to use the NCTD right-of-way as it has been used for many years. 
  • Preserving the “natural” unpaved condition of the existing trail through the right-of-way.
  • Providing a safe and legal way to cross the rail corridor between Chesterfield and Santa Fe, without adding significant new horn noise.
  • Improving bike/ped facilities on Highway 101
The staff, NCTD, and SANDAG have been working to address these concerns, exploring options related to the fence and a rail crossing. When we learned at a recent meeting that the proposed quiet zone at Chesterfield would not ensure that an at-grade crossing at Montgomery could also be a quiet zone, some assumed that there was no acceptable option. I don’t see it that way – we’ve already seen changes in the rail trail plan, and I don’t think we’re far enough into our rail corridor process to know what could happen. The project is not scheduled to be under contract until the end of 2017. In other words, we don’t know yet what is possible and there's time to figure it out.
  • We have not yet tested or modeled a way-side horn at the site of a pedestrian crossing. The right-of-way at Montgomery is quite wide. Directional horns that are as close to the tracks as possible, and pointed north-south, may not increase noise on the east side of San Elijo where the school and homes are located. WE DON’T KNOW because we haven’t had time to do the analysis.
  • Quiet zones have been approved elsewhere. While it may be true that by just looking at Chesterfield and Montgomery, a quiet zone is not likely to be acceptable, we have not yet had the opportunity to evaluate a larger quiet zone that could address train horn noise along the whole Encinitas corridor. If the requisite safety equipment were installed at the crossings between Leucadia Blvd. on the north and Chesterfield on the south, we could propose making the whole corridor a quiet zone, which would require bells and gates, but not horns (except when a train operator determines it is necessary, which they have the authority to do now anywhere along the tracks). WE DON’T KNOW because we haven’t had time to explore this with the regulatory agencies.
  • NCTD has legal responsibility for the right-of-way and rail safety, and has publicly stated that the corridor is going to be fenced within the next 5-10 years regardless of the rail trail plans. Their initial position was that a 6-ft chain link fence needed to be alongside the trail. What we know now is that a 4-ft post and cable fence would be acceptable alongside the trail.
  • Within the last two weeks, NCTD also changed its requirements related to the placement of the fence. This enables us to consider a creative proposal that has been attributed to Cardiff resident Chris Swanner. This compromise would put the paved bike path adjacent to the road and parking on San Elijo, and leave the dirt trail untouched. The fence would be close to the railroad tracks, preserving access to the right-of-way, IF the City is willing to enter into an agreement with NCTD and indemnify NCTD for any problems within the ROW. WE DON’T KNOW if this proposal is feasible – it appears so on first glance, but has not been evaluated in depth. If it is feasible, it could meet many of the goals of the community.
The regional coastal rail trail, approved in the 1990s, calls for a bicycle and pedestrian trail, separated from the road, going the entire length of Encinitas from Solana Beach to Carlsbad, using the NCTD right-of-way, on the east side of the tracks. As with all major projects, this one is divided into segments and planned as funding becomes available. The SANDAG Bike Early Action Plan is part of the regional transportation plan, and responds to transit and active transportation advocates who want to provide more safe alternatives to cars.
The current project highlights the often conflicting goals that decision-makers face. We have heard loud and clear that people who live in Cardiff value their ability to easily get to the beach. We know nobody likes train horns. We also know that people throughout the five communities of Encinitas want better bike and pedestrian facilities and they feel unsafe traveling on San Elijo Avenue unless they are in a car. People of limited mobility, and young families, also don’t feel comfortable cycling on Highway 101 or crossing the tracks without a safe crossing.
What I hope will result from our next Council deliberation is:
  • Creating an opportunity for people in the community to express their preferences and become educated in a calm and respectful forum facilitated by the City Manager or her designee.
  • Council recognition that our public safety responsibility includes improving safety in the rail corridor. I don’t want to wait until more people are hurt or killed on the tracks before we resume our consideration of safe crossings. Continuing the current contract to design and seek approval of an at-grade pedestrian crossing at Montgomery is a prudent move, and will give us the opportunity to understand better what is and is not possible and desirable. This will be required whenever we finally accept that some kind of legal crossing is needed. 
  • Staff/SANDAG direction to evaluate the “Swanner compromise” for a paved roadside bike path on the east side that does not require paving over the dirt trail, and to resume evaluation of the Highway 101 options. We don’t know what the traffic and environmental impacts might be on 101 – there are narrow stretches where retaining walls may be required, and we don’t know what other challenges we might find until we get into the details.
And I hope that everyone will be open to whatever information these additional steps will provide so we can come together around thoughtful, well-reasoned, fact-based decisions.
That's it for now.
With gratitude,
Copyright © 2016 Lisa Shaffer, All rights reserved.
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