More than two and a half years after the North County Transit District submitted its petition for a declaratory order regarding whether Del Mar gets a safety fence constructed along its 1.7 miles of blufftop railroad, the Surface Transportation Board has not yet provided a decision.
The regulatory issue was brought to the STB on Aug. 28, 2020, after years of tension over the fence between the transit district and community residents, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
NCTD Executive Director Matt Tucker has stated numerous times that the fence will not be installed until the federal board rules on the petition.
If the petition is approved, the transit district will have sole jurisdiction over the fence installation and ongoing operations to stabilize the tracks on Del Mar’s deteriorating coastal bluffs. Otherwise, permissions from the state, local, and other agencies will be required.
A cease-and-desist order requested by the Coastal Commission and a lawsuit filed in San Diego Superior Court by a group of locals called Friends of the Del Mar Bluffs were among the replies to the petition last year. Neither case has reached a conclusion.
“Each case is different, so I couldn’t say if the time (the NCTD petition) is taking is typical or not,” STB public affairs officer Michael Booth to the Union-Tribune. “Each case has its own complexity, so there are no comparisons. The board prefers that parties work out their differences before requiring STB intervention. The board has given the space and time for the parties to do that.”
In November 2020, NCTD asked the STB to hold the petition “in abeyance” for 120 days in order to resolve the matter through negotiations with Del Mar and the Coastal Commission. The stay was extended to Dec. 31, 2021, when NCTD announced the parties had reached an impasse and asked the board to renew its petition and expedite a conclusion.
In its most recent response to the petition, Del Mar told the STB on July 25, 2022, that the transit district’s filings overlook a variety of issues, including that Del Mar and the Coastal Commission have consistently allowed emergency bluff repairs without prior authorization over the years.
“It is NCTD that has reversed course on its conditional concurrence agreement, and is now actively seeking to block and delay the project,” the Del Mar letter said.
NCTD has consistently maintained that bluff stability and the fence are public safety issues, and that construction can proceed despite opposition. Yet, the fence project, which is unrelated to bluff stabilization, has halted because of widespread resistance, the report said.
Residents in Del Mar who oppose the fence claim it will restrict access to the beach, hinder views of the ocean, and lower property values, according to the Union-Tribune. The transit district, which has fenced much of San Diego County’s 60-mile coastal rail route, says the proposed 6-foot-tall chain-link or metal-mesh fence is critical to reduce the number of people who die or are injured on the track.
According to NCTD, there were 64 fatalities, 86 accidents, and 315 near-misses on the lines between Oceanside and San Diego from June 2016 to June 2021. The figures are expected to rise as the agency expands the number of daily trains and purchases faster, quieter locomotives.
NCTD received a $1.3 million state grant in 2018 to construct additional fencing, and a district analysis identified trespassing hotspots in Oceanside, Encinitas, and Del Mar, where the fence would be installed. Only the Del Mar right-of-way remains unfenced due to strong opposition, according to the Union-Tribune.
The Coastal Commission, the Del Mar City Council, the San Diego County chapter of Surfrider, and other organizations have all written to the STB to express their opposition to the petition.
Amtrak has backed the petition, adding in a statement that the Del Mar bluff stabilization and fencing projects should be completed “without delay.” The Commuter Rail Coalition has shown support for the petition, as well.
The United States Army’s Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command states that the railroad is important to national defense because it is part of the Strategic Rail Corridor Network but does not take a position on the petition.
A letter from the Association of American Railroads does not take a position, but states that the petition presents “complex and important legal issues” and that the association will follow the situation for implications to the railroad industry as a whole.