Encinitas completes railroad pedestrian undercrossing

Leucadia resident Ellen Riffenburgh, front, her dog Aria and daughter Jasmine Riffenburgh
Leucadia resident Ellen Riffenburgh, front, her dog Aria and daughter Jasmine Riffenburgh walk through the newly completed El Portal railroad undercrossing in Leucadia on Thursday.
(Hayne Palmour IV / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Project finished on time and within budget


The other side of the tracks is a lot closer now in Encinitas.

Old Encinitas, a busy beach neighborhood of shops, restaurants and homes next to Leucadia and Paul Ecke Central Elementary School, finally has its first railroad undercrossing for bicycles and pedestrians.

For the record:

3:04 p.m. Aug. 1, 2022An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the El Portal crossing is in Leucadia. It is in Old Encinitas, just south of Leucadia.

The underground passage goes between North Coast Highway 101 and Vulcan Avenue, at the eastern end of El Portal Street. Previously, the only way to legally cross the rails parallel to North Coast Highway 101 was at one of the nearest street crossings, at Encinitas Boulevard or Leucadia Boulevard.

“This is a two-mile section that had no safe and legal crossing,” said Mayor Catherine Blakespear during a visit Thursday, July 28, to the new underpass. “It’s a huge improvement. This provides a much better connection between neighborhoods.”

A ribbon-cutting and grand opening ceremony for the El Portal crossing are planned for Sunday, Aug. 14, but Wednesday morning, July 27, people already were scooting under the tracks on the fresh concrete.

“It’s really beautiful, and we’ve been waiting for a while,” said Ellen Riffenburgh, who was walking with her daughter Jasmine and dog Aria.

“I live near here, and I’m probably going to use it every day,” Riffenburgh said. “It’s usually quite a long haul to go around. With this, it’s really quick.”

Planning and design began about six years ago, and construction took two years.

The undercrossing cost a little more than $12 million, with about $4 million coming from a state grant and most of the rest from the city’s general fund.

The west side of the undercrossing emerges onto a new roundabout at the intersection of El Portal and North Coast Highway 101. It’s the first of four roundabouts Encinitas plans to install as part of its Streetscape project, along with wider sidewalks, more parking, trees, benches and landscaping.

People have crossed the tracks illegally, something city officials call “historic unpermitted crossing,” since the railroad was built in the 1880s.

But trains are becoming faster, quieter and more frequent, as California encourages the increased use of public transit. North County Transit District, which operates the railroad, is installing a safety fence along the tracks to prevent trespassing.

“This project is truly a partnership between the city, the railroad and SANDAG,” said Sharon Humphreys, director of engineering and construction for the San Diego Association of Governments, the area’s regional planning agency.

“It finished on time and within budget,” Humphreys said.

Also, the bridge built for the undercrossing has room to add a second set of tracks, she said. About three-quarters of the coastal route from Santa Fe Station in San Diego to the Orange County border has been doubletracked so far as part of the effort to increase rail capacity.

Encinitas has one other railroad pedestrian undercrossing that opened in 2013 at the foot of Santa Fe Drive near Swami’s Beach. That project, which also took years to complete, cost about $6 million.

Two others have been proposed, at Montgomery Avenue and Hillcrest Drive, though so far no work has been scheduled for them.