Online campaign renews Cardiff rail trail debate


A resident’s online campaign to stop the Cardiff rail trail has reignited debate over the biking and walking path five months after it won city approval.

Resident Joe Alkhas last week started It calls for the Encinitas City Council to reconsider a plan to put the rail trail east of the tracks along San Elijo Avenue in Cardiff.

As of Nov. 16, more than 750 people had signed a petition on the website, generating emails that flooded the inboxes of council members, transit officials and the editors of local newspapers. The petition states the rail trail will ruin community character by fencing off beach access, and that the path “is a threat to the natural beauty and character of Encinitas.”

When reached over the phone this week, Alkhas said the number of people who signed it is proof that more public input was needed before deciding on the rail trail’s route.

“It was extremely irresponsible that more people weren’t notified in a systematic, meaningful way,” Alkhas said.

In May, the council voted 3-2 for the San Elijo Avenue alignment, rather than an alternative of putting the rail trail west of the tracks on Coast Highway 101.

Deputy Mayor Catherine Blakespear this week said the San Elijo Avenue route will better serve local neighborhoods and get people out of their cars.

“We don’t have a safe and comfortable way to bike and walk between downtown Cardiff and downtown Encinitas,” Blakespear said. “It’s not equivalent infrastructure to put the rail trail on the 101, because people don’t live on that side of the tracks.”

She added that the Highway 101 alternative had another major drawback: the loss of one car lane in sections to accommodate the path.

Regional plans state that the coastal rail trail, designed to boost biking and walking with a multi-use path, will eventually run from Oceanside to downtown San Diego.

Most of the Cardiff section of the rail trail would go on the dirt stretch on the west side of San Elijo Avenue. The petition argues the rail trail would result in concrete over this scenic landscape. Blakespear said that’s not in the plans — the goal is to make the biking and walking path as natural as possible.

She has said as much in emails. The three councilmembers in favor of the San Elijo Avenue route — Blakespear, Lisa Shaffer and Tony Kranz — have responded to petition emails with their own counterpoints.

Blakespear also said the Cardiff alignment wasn’t a “hasty decision,” since there were multiple public meetings on the topic.

Petition emails have come from as far away as Alaska, though most have been from local residents.

Alkhas, who lives on San Elijo Avenue, said ideally he would have started the campaign before the council’s vote. But, he added, business and personal matters prevented him from doing so sooner.

Since the council majority isn’t budging on its position, Alkhas said the consequences could be felt during the 2016 election. At the very least, the rail trail should go back to the now-engaged public, he added.

Alkhas said residents who have weighed in so far have been clear that they don’t want the rail trail on San Elijo Avenue, largely because it would trigger a fence east of the railway and block coastal access.

Transit officials last spring stated that the rail trail would indeed come with a fence.

But regardless of the rail trail, a project to double-track a 1.5-mile stretch of railway between downtown Encinitas and Cardiff would require a fence, said Dahvia Lynch, chief planning officer with North County Transit District (NCTD), this week.

SANDAG, the agency behind the double tracking, estimates it will begin sometime next year. It’s also in charge of the Cardiff rail trail and anticipates construction on the path will start in 2017.

NCTD, which owns the railway, mandates that SANDAG improvements along the tracks have to include fencing, Lynch said. She added it’s also a matter of safety.

Citing the fencing, the three councilmembers in favor of the rail trail also previously voted to seek state approval for an at-grade rail crossing (as opposed to over or under the tracks) at Montgomery Avenue in Cardiff. Plus, they’re pursuing a “quiet zone” at the intersection, which entails installing safety improvements at the crossing to reduce train horn blasts.

Councilman Mark Muir said the quiet zone isn’t guaranteed, so the at-grade crossing could actually mean more horn noise in the area.

“Now you’re maybe creating a secondary issue,” Muir said.

He joined Mayor Kristin Gaspar in opposing the San Elijo Avenue alternative. He said the Cardiff community has long voiced concerns over the rail trail, and that most residents opposed the San Elijo Avenue option during a community meeting last spring.

“This opposition was predictable,” Muir said of the petition. He added it’s unfortunate that taxpayer dollars are being spent on a project that’s unpopular locally.

Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer said it’s dangerous biking and walking on San Elijo Avenue, forcing people to commute by car. The rail trail will change this, she added.

Shaffer also said the campaign’s website has spread misinformation, including that rail trail funding is coming from city coffers. The $5.1 million project is being paid for by a grant and Transnet, the county half-cent sales tax for infrastructure.

“I can understand why, if you tell people the city is about to block their access to the surf and make their street dangerous, they would click to sign,” Shaffer said of the petition. She added that’s “not an accurate picture.”