Encinitas may borrow close to $30 million for Coast Highway project


Encinitas City Council members are leaning toward borrowing close to $30 million so the city can overhaul much of Leucadia’s portion of Coast Highway 101 all at once, instead of doing the project into three phases as previously proposed.

All of the council members, including Councilman Mark Muir who has opposed the project’s proposed traffic circle roundabouts, told city staffers at a goal-setting workshop last week that they wanted to borrow money so the construction work wouldn’t have to be spread out over the next decade.

“I see a lot of benefits in borrowing the money and doing the project as a whole,” Muir said.

The benefits included minimizing the disruption to businesses and residents, council members said. There’s also the added benefit that interest rates are low now, Assistant City Manager Mark Delin told them.

“You have interest rates that are pretty close to historic lows, and they’re quite likely to increase (later),” he said.

Known as Leucadia Streetscape, the project would add up to six traffic roundabouts along a 2-1/2-mile stretch of the heavily trafficked coastal highway from La Costa Avenue to A Street, and eliminate a vehicle lane in each direction along much of the route.

One of the key goals is to make the route more walkable and bikeable. Plans call for new sidewalks along the west side of the roadway, buffered bike lanes in each direction, and a decomposed granite pathway between the highway and the railroad tracks.

Earlier this month, the council voted 4-1, with Muir opposed, to certify the project’s environmental impact report. Next, the plans will undergo state Coastal Commission review.

So far, the city has set aside $10.03 million for what’s estimated to be a $29.96 million project. During last week’s goal-setting workshop, city employees offered various proposals for cutting the project’s overall price tag as well as suggestions for borrowing money to finance the construction work.

The cost-cutting proposals included delaying construction of one or more of the traffic circle roundabouts, decreasing the number of special street lights, reducing the number of parking areas, and planting the project’s proposed trees, but not the shrubs or ground covers.

Council members said they couldn’t support any of these things. Mayor Catherine Blakespear said she wanted the city to give priority to projects like this one, which has been waiting in the wings for years, while Councilman Tony Kranz said borrowing the money would allow the city to do this project and several other high-priority ones at the same time.

If the city borrowed money to finance all of the Streetscape project, it could use the money it has already set aside for it for other things, Kranz said, including a partially funded project to improve Cardiff’s Birmingham Drive. The city needs $6.65 million for that project, which calls for undergrounding power lines and putting in a roundabout at Newcastle Avenue.

“For me, the undergrounding is as important a project as Streetscape is,” Muir said.

Councilman Joe Mosca said he wanted funding for a transportation study of El Camino Real that could be used as a resource when applying for grants to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety along the busy roadway.

A proposed pedestrian crossing point under the railroad tracks at Cardiff’s Verdi Avenue also made the list of items that could receive some funding if the city took out a loan to pay for the Streetscape project, council members said.

Encinitas has the ability to add to its current debt load, Delin said. It’s currently paying 5 percent of its operating expenses to service its existing debt, and cities are advised to stay at 8 percent or lower, he said. The city has borrowed money in recent years to purchase the former Pacific View Elementary School property, construct the Encinitas Community Park, and build a new lifeguard tower at Moonlight Beach.

--Barbara Henry is a reporter with The San Diego Union-Tribune.