To sort out the various cost projections, as well as clarify the engineering issues inherent to the project, I seek out Linda Culp, a senior project manager for the San Diego Association of Governments (Sandag). Like almost everyone else with whom I speak, Culp is in favor of the train stop but makes the point that building it isn’t quite as simple as Richard Eckfield believes it to be. To begin with, there’s a veritable Gordian knot of governmental agencies and jurisdictions involved, including Sandag (the lead agency), the Fair Board, the City of Del Mar, the North County Transit District, the California Coastal Commission, San Diego County, and a few others. According to Culp, cost — she says that Sandag places it at some $88 to $90 million — has been the principal culprit in the delays. To that end, Culp says that her organization has applied to Washington for federal stimulus funds earmarked for the two costliest and most crucial infrastructure components of the project — the replacement for the old trestle bridge and the mile or more of double tracking. Culp is optimistic that the application will be approved and that the rail stop will be completed in five to ten years.
Del Mar mayor Crystal Crawford also says she’s on board, noting that both Thoroughbred racing and the San Diego County Fair are essential to Del Mar’s identity. She notes, however, that the train stop has been “just one of many items on Del Mar’s infrastructure-improvement wish list.” Although she appreciates the Eckfields’ efforts, she points out the obvious hurdles faced in moving forward with the project. Among those, she says, are the evident environmental concerns regarding the San Dieguito Lagoon, a “sensitive” area whose wealthy neighbors may, she notes, object to the degradation of the “viewshed” that will occur when the railbed is raised by at least six to eight feet.
Although not as critical of the City of Del Mar as he is of the Fair Board, Eckfield characterizes Crawford’s position as “lip service,” saying that the mayor “works for Sandag.” Crawford refers me to Jacqueline Winterer, one of her mayoral predecessors, for an additional perspective. Winterer, who is president of the Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley and who takes credit for having spearheaded efforts to preserve local wetlands, labels Richard Eckfield a “single-issue guy in a very complex matter,” who tends to minimize the difficulties of the project. She also notes that the project has never come up for a vote among Del Mar residents. When asked to comment on local opposition to the rail stop, she recommends I chat with a woman whom she describes as being “just as extreme” an opponent as Eckfield is a proponent.
For Sharon Feierabend, a Del Mar resident, Sandag and its allies aren’t bureaucratic obstructionists but, in fact, enablers and promulgators of a “ridiculous project” that is not only a “waste of taxpayers’ money” but a venture that would degrade the quality of life for locals. She says that she’s “never heard of” Richard Eckfield and that “he must be a Johnny-come-lately.” But like the Eckfields, Feierabend is a feisty retiree with a lot of time on her hands, quite a bit of which has been spent during the past five years “researching” the issue. An Iowan who followed her husband to Del Mar in the early 1960s, she takes pride in having pushed for Del Mar’s incorporation, as well as in playing a vital role in “saving the lagoon.” Her objections to the project form a long, eclectic, and occasionally disjointed litany — centered not on the platform itself but on the rail improvements needed for the anticipated increase in train traffic along the route.
“I am so irate at the Del Mar City Council and Sandag. They want to spend millions of dollars on this old diesel technology and build a tunnel under Del Mar; they haven’t even done soil studies to see if it’s viable. Also, it’s a proven fact that railroads create tiny metal shards, which people living near the tracks inhale.” Feierabend (who fervently champions the use of buses) hates trains, and if she had her way, the entire railroad line along San Diego County’s coast would be uprooted in favor of a bike path. Calling the Coaster “a complete fiasco,” she says that only about 2500 commuters currently use the train and that the rail line’s location, hard on the Pacific, inherently precludes the level of use that would justify the cost because “no one lives to the west except for the fish.”
For Eckfield, the trackside train stop is not only a means to get more people to the races but a symbolic blow in favor of mass transit. “I’m a history guy. Do you remember the Red Cars?” Eckfield, who grew up in Pasadena, recalls with fondness the era in which a light rail system crisscrossed the greater Los Angeles area. Eckfield’s nostalgia for this long-defunct mass transit system is accompanied by an equally intense antipathy toward the automobiles that rendered the Red Car network a relic. Decrying the Southern California car culture, he vigorously castigates “people who drive ten-mile-per-gallon Hummers at 80 on the freeway.”
More immediately though, Eckfield longs for the day when Thoroughbred owners and big-time horseplayers from Orange and Los Angeles counties can take the train directly to the track without using “the stinky old double-decker buses” that currently ferry them a mile or so from the Solana Beach stop. He also feels that it’s urgent that far-flung race fans — the folks who rent tony condos for thousands per week during the meet — be inconvenienced as little as possible. To that end, he mentions an acquaintance from Chicago who complains of the “noisy buses” and “drunken partiers” who spoil the serenity of his Cedros Avenue race-meet hangout.
To the extent a controversy over the rail stop exists, Joe Harper, who has been lauded extensively for his stewardship as president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, takes an upbeat, conciliatory approach. Although he welcomes anything that would draw more fans to the track, he says that Del Mar — the economy notwithstanding — is far from suffering these days.
He points out that Del Mar “does three times the business of other tracks with the same product.” Moreover, Harper says that the double-decker shuttle buses from the Solana Beach station have worked well and that he’s heard no complaints. “The rail stop would be nice, but we’ve gotten along well without it for decades.” When I ask him to comment on Fennell, he says, wryly, “I never disagree with my landlord.”