When Capistrano Beach (“Capo Beach”) residents and business owners received a colorful postcard asking for public input on the proposed “Serra Siding”, most were mystified. Weren’t rail sidings usually placed in industrial areas where stacked and idling trains would have little negative impact? But the map telegraphed Metrolink’s intent: someone clearly thought the 1- mile stretch between Victoria Blvd and Beach Road along a seriously eroding, highly popular public beach was an ideal spot for a siding. It isn’t. In fact, they could not have picked a worse spot. And now, residents question whether the siding is needed at all. Here are a few of the major issues:
- Metrolink ridership has been flat or declining since 2010. A corridor that once ran 53 Metrolink and Amtrak passenger trains, now runs 26 – less than half the 2015-2019 volume.
- Metrolink’s 14 current trains carry on average 276 passengers per weekday – about 3% of actual capacity. It’s hard to believe extra cars are needed, let alone whole trains or a siding. Even with projected 20-year population increases, there will be no bottlenecks in South County, and existing trains won’t be close to full.
- Work from home trends will undoubtedly continue at a rate well above prior commuting practices, providing little hope that ridership will recover any time soon. Even before the pandemic, Metrolink ridership was flat between 2011 and 2019, and 2021 is tracking 82% down from 2019. If they didn’t need a siding ten years ago, why do they think they need one now?
- If there are any other reasons for more sidings, these have not been shared with the public. And if one is warranted, Metrolink could not have picked a more damaging location.
- OCTA’s Climate Study admits the 9-mile coastal alignment that runs from San Juan Capistrano to San Onofre will be in big trouble within 20 years or less due to sea level rise and rapid erosion.
- 6 hotels (soon to be 7) face the construction zone across Pacific Coast Highway – hotels that suffered significant losses during the pandemic and will now face a two year construction period during which the quiet zone will be suspended. Tourists don’t choose hotels blasted by train horns; and cities that host them lose transient occupancy taxes.
- Over 1 million people visit Doheny and Capistrano Beaches each year. The impact of train horns and heavy construction on beach going crowds (and their vehicles) mere feet from the railroad right-of-way will bring another economic blow, not to mention public health impacts.
- In addition to the hotels, many businesses, and 7,400 residents on the Palisades above will face train horns and a construction zone for two years, and then a siding where idling trains will mar coastal views. The impact on businesses, sleep cycles, quality of life, and public views will be severe, both during and after construction.
Officials from Metrolink, and OCTA, which owns the right-of-way and is handling public outreach for the project were dismayed when comment letters poured in – so many that they extended the public outreach period twice, first to May 31st, and then to July 31st. Residents have been frustrated by the lack of answers to key questions.
Where is the local needs assessment? While Metrolink trots out the Lossan Service Development Plan as its “needs assessment”, residents complain the projections are seriously outdated, relying on Moody’s 2011 population projections that were way off from today’s reality. No public workshops for the 2013 plan were held in Orange County. When Voice of OC ran an article on the project Metrolink officials said the siding would prevent delays and reduce train idling through the area, but locals can attest that there are no delays, no idling, and South County trains are routinely almost empty.
Why wasn’t an industrial area immediately north considered for the siding? Over 2.2 miles of double track exist directly north of the proposed site. These could be connected to more double tracking out of San Juan Capistrano with almost no impacts. In fact, OCTA has already approved funds to replace a railroad bridge over San Juan Creek, including providing a foundation for a future double track. If the siding is indeed necessary, why would Metrolink choose a highly sensitive visitor serving area over this low impact industrial area that parallels the 5 freeway?
Why would anyone add $50 million of long-term infrastructure along one of the fastest eroding beaches in Orange County? Doheny Beach closed its south parking lot 3 years ago as chunks of asphalt began and continue to erode into the surf. At Capistrano Beach, a basketball court, restrooms, sidewalks and 80 parking spots have been lost to pounding surf in the last two years. This month, OC Public Works crews are bulldozing and stacking huge sand cubes at Capo Beach in efforts to save a portion of a state-long coastal trail that has been repeatedly threatened by high tides and coastal surges. The trail is about 30 feet from OCTA’s right-of-way, part of a nine-mile coastal alignment referred to in OCTA’s own Climate Report as an endangered stretch that the Coastal Commission wants relocated inland. Three miles south, San Clemente’s tracks are in close proximity to a similarly eroding shoreline where recent photos captured waves hitting a train as it rounded the narrow bend at Cotton Point. The Climate Report estimates that the adjacent Mariposa Promontory, where a serious slide and trail closure occurred last year, will be in serious trouble as early as 2040, less than twenty years away.
Why would anyone spend $50 million of public funds on new infrastructure here – especially since it doesn’t appear to be needed?
Toni Nelson is a retired CPA and founder of non-profit community organization Capo Cares, an advocacy group for the community of Capistrano Beach in the City of Dana Point. Since 2014, Capo Cares has followed issues of interest to community members, such as coastal erosion, beautification, public health and safety, local politics and arts and cultural events. The group updates the community via periodic newsletters and daily postings at www.Facebook.com/capocares. Nelson writes frequently on topics related to coastal erosion as a community contributor at www.patch.com/lagunaniguel-danapoint and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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