Progress stalls on Coastal Rail Trail talks

Much of the discussion at the City Council chambers on July 13 revolved around the proposed Encinitas portion of the Coastal Rail Trail, a 44-mile long system of pedestrian and bicycle trails to be constructed by SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments) from San Diego to Oceanside.

And while a positive step forward was taken when the City Council picked the roster for a citizen Coastal Mobility and Livability Working Group during the special City Council session that came before the regular meeting, there was little to no progress made during a discussion of a possible Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city and SANDAG regarding the initial segment (39C) of the rail trail.

The segment — which runs along the railroad tracks near Highway 101 between Chesterfield and G Street — has been the source of controversy for more than a year. In May 2015, the council originally selected an alignment on the east side of the tracks, closer to San Elijo Ave, but community feedback and the prospect of lower cost persuaded it to change its mind in March of this year. At that time, the council chose a west-side alignment, closer to Highway 101.

Because SANDAG had already put nearly half a million dollars into preparations for an east-side trail, its Transportation Committee ordered a halt to all further progress pending an MOU with the city.

With $1 million of the approximately $6 million of rail trail funding coming from a time-sensitive ATP (Active Transportation Program) grant from the state — on which the organization has already received a 20-month extension — and its view that Encinitas hasn’t sufficiently gotten the go-ahead from other involved parties like the California Coastal Commission, SANDAG wants an MOU that makes the city liable for loss of the $1 million grant if that go-ahead takes too much time to nail down.

While none of the city council members were agreeable to that portion of the MOU in the first place, another complication arose following a July 12 meeting between city and SANDAG staff, staff members from the Coastal Commission and San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox, a Coastal Commissioner.

City and SANDAG staff presented the west-side alignment and heard concerns from the Coastal Commission staff about the consistency of that alignment with the North Coast Corridor’s Public Works Plan (PWP), which was adopted in 2014.

Specifically, that plan stated that there would have to be a “safety, environmental or physical reason” to move section 39C of the rail trail from the east to the west side of the tracks. The Coastal Commission had an additional traffic concern as well.

This left the City Council and SANDAG with a couple of options, none of which appealed to any of the councilmembers. After nearly an hour of discussion, the council’s consensus was to wait until a Friday morning meeting of SANDAG’s Transportation Commission, during which Encinitas Deputy Mayor Lisa Shaffer will present the city’s case against taking the $1 million of financial liability, as well as continue working with the Coastal Commission and getting feedback from the community via the Coastal Mobility and Livability Working Group.

Shaffer and some of her colleagues did emphasize one ray of hope that came out of the July 12 meeting with the Coastal Commission. While staff was forceful in its concerns about a west-side rail trail alignment being inconsistent with language in the PWP, commissioner Cox was more positive, leading council members to believe that the Coastal Commission could rule in favor of allowing a west-side alignment, should Encinitas (and SANDAG) decide to go forward with that plan.