Just a few feet of delicate rock stand between the scenic Del Mar rail line and the beach down below where people often sunbathe and walk.
It's also the area where officials want to move the rail line away from the beach and into a tunnel. It would be a permanent solution to coastal erosion that has halted trains in Orange County.
San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the region's transportation planning agency, is studying options for digging tunnels, and is currently soliciting public input, including a meeting at Del Mar City Hall on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.
The plans don’t sit very well with some Del Mar residents, who don’t want an underground tunnel running under the town.
During a recent Del Mar City Council meeting, SANDAG gave residents an update on the project.
The goal is to move the tracks that carry trains from Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner, the Southern California Regional Rail Authority’s Metrolink, and the North County Transit District’s COASTER and SPRINTER passenger rail services, plus Union Pacific and BNSF Railway freight rail services.
Staff presented five route options, and have begun studies on two of them, though all options are still on the table, said SANDAG Deputy CEO Colleen Clementson.
“This just really helps to inform the process,” she said. “It just gives us this finer level of detail to really understand the constraints that we're dealing with in this project.”
The state has given SANDAG a $300 million grant for the study of two routes that would run underneath two roads, Camino Del Mar and Crest Canyon.
“As we started to do that more detailed analysis, we came to understand that we didn't actually need as big a tunnel as we thought,” Clementson said. “It can actually be smaller.”
But residents like the Rev. Paige Blair-Hubert, the director of St. Peter's Church, aren’t convinced. The church is sandwiched between the two studied routes.
“We're pretty familiar with this soil,” Blair-Hubert said. ”We very recently did a construction project in which we dug an elevator shaft and it was actually the most hairy part of the project.”
Before a shovel went into the ground, soil tests and engineering had to be cleared, she said.
“The sides were coming in on themselves and it was like they were trying to shovel glitter,” she said. “It was pretty hairy and it wasn't clear what it was going to take to stabilize (the soil). And that was just a little elevator shaft a block away in either direction of the two proposals they’re discussing.”
Her concern is what will come out of the environmental studies that have yet to be done.
“If the soil is already problematic where they have the train tracks, and it's problematic because of the vibration and the use and erosion, then tunneling through the earth and creating erosion opportunities and more vibration opportunities, it just seems pretty problematic,” she said.
Some residents think it would be better to move the tracks near Interstate 5. But SANDAG's Clementson said the I-5 route comes with challenges.
“It's further away from the existing rail corridor, so you have to build more infrastructure, and that increases cost,” she said.
And more tracks mean a larger impact to homes and businesses, she said.
“We absolutely want to minimize the amount of property that has to be purchased,” she said. “But we know, no matter what with this project, there will be the need for property acquisition.”
And longer rail lines mean an increase in travel time, which SANDAG doesn’t want.
The train between San Diego and Orange County has been halted over and over again because of another trouble spot up north in San Clemente. There, another project is underway to move the tracks away from coastal bluffs.
But State Sen. Catherine Blakespear (D-Encinitas) said there isn’t a larger organization collecting grants to help with coastal erosion along the Los Angeles—San Diego—San Luis Obispo (LOSSAN) rail line, and multiple agencies oversee different sections.
“What's been happening is that individual sections will compete against each other for grants,” she said. “They'll also make their own just internal decisions about whether the transit agency wants to make an improvement to that section.”
Blakespear formed the LOSSAN resiliency subcommittee that will look at the entire 351-mile long stretch of tracks as a whole to identify where improvements are needed. Then, she said, agencies need to come together and prioritize projects, not compete for funding.
And right now, the attention falls on Del Mar.
A final design for the Del Mar tunnels won’t be announced until 2026. Until then, SANDAG plans on conducting studies and talking to the public.