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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.”

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Comments

seahorse Sept. 26, 2009 @ 6:58 p.m.

[Tim Fenel] responds by saying that it all boils down to a lack of funding"

Excuse me but the fairgrounds is the only government agency in California that is gushing revenue. There is are a reason the fairgrounds doesn't have their budget on line. People would freak out how much revenue they have and how much money they are spending on major capital improvements and Tim's beach resort complex. The money is there. Tim has to go.

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eastcountylady Sept. 28, 2009 @ 10:03 a.m.

I have said this before in your story last March called "Del Mar Un-Fairgrounds," where the Reader pointed out that this fellow has been pitching the idea of re-establishing the train stop at the Fairgrounds for three years...but no one there is listening.

Bing Crosby started direct train service the second year of racing at Del Mar in 1938, and it ran for almost 30 years.

So I will try again to get you to listen to me. From East County have three choices when it comes to horse racing. I can go to Barona, Viejas,or drive to Del Mar. If I now take the Trolley to Old Town to catch the Coaster, I likely WOULD do that if I could get off at the track and walk in the few hundred feet into the grandstand. But I hate the traffic and the idea that I will go to Solana Beach just to catch a bus back the 2 miles to the track stinks, just like the busses do.

I do not know if this guy Harper ever gets out of the Turf Club to find out what the real fans want, which is service and a fun experience. No wonder this sport is dying. And please Turf Club, don't take the credit for that beautiful setting. God and the vacationers made Del Mar a financial success, not the insightfulness of the marketing staff. Building that train stop is truly a "no-brainer."

I thought Arnold was going to sell this place. Any real racing firm worth its salt would build that stop in a nano-second.

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incognito Sept. 26, 2009 @ 8:04 a.m.

The Del Mar Fairgrounds is far and away the most grand venue in all of Southern California for such a broad range of attractions, I can't think of anyplace that hosts as many events. The diversity of attractions makes this a venue that benefits every person in the community. Not only is it grand, not only is it diverse, patronized by hundreds of thousands of people every year, it's the oldest grand venue of our coastal paradise AND of historical (and sentimental) significance. That the Del Mar Fairgrounds (or whatever you're calling it this week)should and must be made a major hub of mass transit is obvious--a no-brainer--there is no rational argument to the contrary. Get started on making a transit hub there, a crossroads of bus and train service from every outlying area in Southern Cal. Duh! I'm so exasperated, words fail. Wait, I forgot (as did the author)to note the cost of parking a car there is between $8.00 and $20.00, a sad fact that has kept many people away. How many families may find that if even they can manage admission to the event, the cost of parking is the deal breaker. (Thank you SDReader)

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paperannex Sept. 24, 2009 @ 10:33 a.m.

Thanks for keeping this story going, but I wish that SANDAG and the track management would get the numbers right. It would only cost about $6 million. We don't want or need double track, nor a new bridge, just a platform for the people to stand on. The train would stop for less than 3 minutes to let people on and off the train. Using the $80 million price is a lie. Also, if Mr. Harper hasn't heard the constant complaints about the smell of the buses, HE HASN'T BEEN LISTENING. We all hate the buses. I personally sent Mr. Harper a petition from my friends in San Juan Capistrano 2 years ago. On opening day the wait for the smelly buses was OVER AN HOUR. Richard and Helen are our leaders, but there are thousands behind them.

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bleutz Sept. 30, 2009 @ 10:14 a.m.

It completely boggles my mind that this is even up for discussion. Every major race track in the country has a train stop. In Chicago, Arlington Park has thousands of people getting off in the parking lot every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Heck, the Metra Train System even offers riders a $5.00 all you can ride weekend ticket, and kids ride for free. Arlington would be a ghost town without the train stopping steps from the grandstand.

Belmont Park in NY has the same thing. They got rid of the train for one meet last year and attendance took a huge drop. Sure enough the train started going there again.

My point is that a train stop at the fairgrounds would do nothing but benefit the track and the community. I cannot understand why this is even a question. The Fair Board should see this as a way to bring in additional income not continue to fight it. The community should see it as more people spending money in their town. I think the problem here is that it makes too much sense!

My hat is off to Richard and Helen....Keep up the good fight!

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leutzy Oct. 1, 2009 @ 11:26 a.m.

As a Chicagoan I come to Del Mar each year for two weeks of racing there. But it’s not me that lives on Cedros in your story. It’s to disruptive with the busses and the drunks. I rent in Encinitas, with its cute downtown where I could walk to the Coaster stop, and would if I could get off at the track. Now I drive.

With regard to the “empty suits” – a racing term meaning the substance less folks that end up running some race tracks, we had one back here. Marge Everett bribed Governor Otto Kerner Jr. to give Arlington, which she managed, special race days and new freeway off ramps. She declared the bribe as a “ordinary business expense” on her taxes, and he went to jail. That’s Chicago! However, it appears a plan to give the current “suits” out there an uncontested new 20 year contract just got foiled. Your guys are learning. Of course they do have Duke Cunningham, your former congressman, to look up to as a role model.

At Arlington, families ride the train directly to the track where they picnic, and the kids see the horses up close and personal. The parents explain the math of the “odds” and kids learn about “probability.” That could be why our students do better on standardized math tests than yours. Perhaps some of the profits the “suits” are pocketing out there should be used to endow math classes, or equine management classes in the high schools. Think about it, this sport is struggling, and gambling will not be its salvation.

Chicagoguy.

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