A proposed new coastal train track to relieve south Orange County’s railway bottleneck and ridership woes is pitting Dana Point locals against transportation officials.

Specifically, an area of the city known as Capistrano Beach, like other parts of the coast, faces erosion and beach sand loss problems, as well as projected sea level rise.

That erosion also poses risks for nearby businesses and homeowners, as well as recreational spaces and infrastructure near the shoreline. Locals say a new track along this area, in turn, would cause further problems.

Known as the Serra Siding project, officials would build 1.2 miles of additional siding track next to the existing mainline, from Victoria Boulevard to Beach Road and adjacent to Pacific Coast Highway. 

Construction is expected to begin in 2024 and could take up to two years.

A map of the project. Source: Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.

Some locals, through letters to transportation officials, aren’t convinced about the need for this project, as well as the noise, dust and vibration from its construction, on what they say is an endangered section of the coastline.

The siding track, like the existing main line, would run just a couple hundred feet away from the shoreline.

In the past five years, those near the area’s Doheny State Beach have watched “in horror” as dozens of palm trees and chunks of the closed south parking lot have crumbled into the sea, wrote project critic Toni Nelson in a recent letter to transportation officials.

Nelson, a local resident who created the community advocacy and discussion group known as “Capo Cares,” in her letter continued: 

“Capistrano Beach Park, next door, has lost millions in infrastructure, including a basketball court, restrooms, sidewalks and a large portion of parking lot. A narrow coastal trail located a mere 30 feet from the railway right of way is subject to constant destructive surf and was nearly lost last year.” 

Amid warnings of sea level rise and the expected further erosion of south county’s beaches, Nelson wrote state officials have agreed that “nothing should be built along the shoreline as coastal cities grapple with the effects on tourism, business and residential areas.”

Asked about these concerns, Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) spokesman Joel Zlotnik in an email response said “erosion, and measures to address any potential impacts, is one of the many areas that will be studied during the environmental phase of the project.” 

“We look forward to hearing from residents and encourage their comments during this phase of the project,” Zlotnik said. 

“This area is identified as a location where a siding track would greatly enhance rail operations,” said OCTA spokesperson Eric Carpenter on March 16, who added that, based on projected levels of increased service, the siding track would allow for more trains to run in the future.  

Carpenter called it “a key to offering people travel options and reducing congestion” on the Interstate-5 Freeway, which runs all the way down to San Diego. 

Transportation officials say the additional track would enhance rail operations, which are currently suffering from issues like congestion and delays because trains along the single-track mainline in the area are required to stop and wait for another train to pass in the opposite direction. 

Specifically, officials say, the project would help trains arrive on time, improve operational efficiency, and ensure safety.

They also say the continuous movement of trains along this area of the new siding track — and the reduction of train idling — would also reduce air pollution.

After all, some argue there’s a real need to improve local, underutilized rail lines — a facet of public transportation seen as a more sustainable alternative to highly polluted and congested freeways. 

Train delays as long as four hours have hit the region, something that can discourage ridership. 

Such delays are being called out by local officials as proof of a need for more infrastructure investment.

Project construction is expected to begin in 2024 and would continue for up to 24 months. Credit: GARRETT TROUTMAN, Voice of OC

The project is currently in its conceptual phase, a time where officials say they’re holding public meetings to gather input on this $50 million construction endeavor from local stakeholders like residents, beachgoers and businesses.

Some of those stakeholders aren’t happy.

Nelson told Voice of OC the project would negatively impact nearby homeowners along the local bluffs and on Beach Road, as well as local businesses, on a number of other fronts.

Namely, much of the concern lies in the potential noise caused by more frequent trains and the construction of the track. 

Dana Point City Councilman Joe Muller, who also sits on OCTA’s Board of Directors, acknowledged the anticipated impacts of the project at a Feb. 16 council meeting:

“One of the things Metrolink doesn’t understand is, this has a huge impact on our community. That double track will allow them to stack trains on the beach so they can pull one over, get one passed, bring the other one back out, and they don’t understand we need mitigation for that,” he said.

“Not technical mitigation but quality of life mitigation,” said Muller, mentioning the possibility of an underpass tunnel near the Doheny Village area to ensure greater beach connectivity.

Another concern is that the project area currently sits in a “quiet zone,” which is a section of a rail line where locomotive horns aren’t routinely sounded when trains approach the crossings, and often come at the request of neighborhoods and homeowners in the area.

In opposition letters Nelson shared, residents voiced concern about possibly hearing more train horns during the project’s construction, and that they could pose noise nuisance to local residents and devalue nearby properties during the construction phase.

Carpenter said the area’s quiet zone “would not change with this project,” but said federal guidelines “require trains to sound their horns in construction zones, in emergency situations, or when a trespasser is present on rail right of way.” 

“Because of this, we understand residents may hear more train horns during construction to help ensure the safety of workers and the public,” Carpenter added.

Residents have also voiced concern over the potential air pollution caused by more frequent trains. 

Carpenter said the siding track would allow continuous movement through the mainline and siding track as trains pass, which would help reduce air pollution in the area.

“The greatest need is seen during peak morning and evening commuting hours where we have higher ridership numbers and the need to run more frequent service, also when the adjacent I-5 is most congested,” Carpenter said. 

Residents like Nelson question whether the increase to train capacity resulting from the project will actually result in more riders, arguing current ridership rates are minimal and that the work-from-home movement as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic could further hurt train ridership trends in the long run. 

The Serra Siding project is one part of a larger program known as the Southern California Optimized Rail Expansion, or SCORE, which was developed in 2017 and saw its funding secured the year after. 

As the project progresses through its conceptual phase, Carpenter said “we welcome input and questions from the public, which will be considered as part of the environmental review process and help shape the project.”

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