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A controversial train track siding proposal along south Orange County’s eroding coastline has found itself under the public microscope yet again this month, facing questions and criticisms over the project’s justification.
To the transportation agencies steering this still-nascent proposal, the $50 million construction of a siding track next to an existing train track in Capistrano Beach could alleviate bottleneck issues, decrease train delays, reduce traffic pollution, and encourage more train ridership.
It’s an investment in a local train system beset by low ridership — at a time where some local officials in general have called for it — amid what the proposal’s sponsor agencies warn will be considerable population growth and a need to reduce traffic congestion on heavily-used freeways.
But a host of objecting Capistrano Beach residents say they see no reason why the 1.2-mile siding track extension, officially known as the Serra Siding proposal, has to go on one of the most physically and economically sensitive stretches of the county’s coastline.
And while the proposing agencies — Regional train service Metrolink and the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) — point to population growth as a justification for the siding project, critics say the study they’re basing those projections on is years outdated.
The project is currently in its preliminary design phase, with public meetings and permitting processes all still to come. If the project is permitted, construction would begin in early 2025, officials say.
Parking lots, recreational areas, and facilities along the proposed project site’s adjacent stretch of the Capistrano Beach coast are kissing the shore or have already crumbled into the sea due to beach sand loss, sea level rise and coastal erosion.
The new siding track will run next to the main one along an area known for its hotels, and a coastal highway overpass bridge, located within the City of Dana Point.
To critics, another track in the area will bring trains “too close,” said local resident Kim Tarantino, speaking of sea level rise posing a direct threat to her community, during the public comment portion of a July 20 Dana Point City Council meeting.
“Too close to the eroding coastal trail, too close to families on the beach, too close to a beautiful public view corridor, too close to 10 stately palm trees that will have to be destroyed.”
She and other project critics also raised concerns about what would be an obstruction of coastal views by more trains, as well as noise and dust from a long period of project construction.
Such impacts could also have effects on local hotels and tourism in the area, which in turn, critics argue, could affect commerce and the local economy.
“Just too close,” Tarantino said.
Critics are also raising questions about just where, exactly, Metrolink and OCTA are coming from when they claim there’s a regional need for the project.
Most recently, one elected official in Dana Point is calling out a failure by the agencies to effectively justify it.
“If I was coaching your team through this event, I would recommend they do not proceed with expending any resources towards this project,” said Dana Point Councilman Michael Villar in a letter to OCTA, shared with Voice of OC by Capistrano Beach resident Toni Nelson.
Villar told Voice of OC he sent the letter on July 25.
In it, he adds: “You have not proven your original problem statement and the solution to your ‘problem’ costs more than the problem itself.”
Asked to respond to Villar’s letter on Monday, Metrolink spokesperson Jeanette Flores said in an emailed response:
“We appreciate Councilman Vilar’s correspondence and will continue to work in partnership with OCTA to provide information to our community partners.”
The scope of the proposal essentially entails the construction of a new siding track next to the existing one from Victoria Blvd to Beach Road, expanding the existing route’s capacity for about 1.2 miles and connecting to another 1.8-mile siding track.
“What’s key here is we’re going to basically have … 3 miles of (extra) track that allows trains to pass one another,” said Justin Fornelli, Chief of Program Delivery for Metrolink, speaking at the July 20 council meeting in a presentation.
“The idea with the siding track is we are trying to time our trains so they don’t have to slow down to pass each other … There is some slowing for diversion and movement to get that switch but for the most part, we want to maintain our operational speeds.”
The “choke point” for train services along the existing single track lies nine miles south of the proposed proposal’s location, Fornelli said, later adding such choke points “have a ripple effect of delaying trains along our (entire) system.”
“When people can’t get home, to work on time, we’re not reliable,” he said. In turn, when the rail system isn’t reliable, people don’t use it.
Another resident, Buck Hill, at the Dana Point council meeting pointed to cuts to train service over the years: “The trains running two years ago were double the number today, 53 today between Amtrak and Metrolink. Now they’re down to way less than half of that, 26.”
Residents at the council meeting said if there is indeed a true need for the project, it should be placed in a more industrial area away from residences and businesses that would be affected.
Fornelli, grilled by Villar from the dais at the July 20 meeting, said internal “modeling” of data at Metrolink determined that the identified location in Capistrano Beach best served the rail network as a whole.
“With modeling you have to look at this as a system-wide service, and it’s kind of like you take a water balloon — push it on one location it’s gonna blow out on another side … that modeling and analysis identified that location as the ideal location,” Fornelli said.
Local resident Nick Tarantino, at the same meeting during public comment, said “there are currently 2.2 miles of double tracks that run north from Victoria Blvd. This siding does not affect residents, beachgoers or visitor-servicing businesses.”
He also raised an alternative of a 9.6-mile rail tunnel along I-5 north from San Onofre to San Juan Capistrano, identified in studies, that they said would be a safer alternative to the siding project away from the hazards of the eroding coast.
Fornelli told council members that the agencies were indeed considering the alternatives proposed by Capistrano Beach residents — as well as a “no-build” scenario — but that the process has been halted as the agencies extended the proposal’s public comment phase through the end of July.
Another prong of the proposal is to replace an over-90-year-old railroad bridge over Pacific Coast Highway — an idea which has been welcomed by locals but appears to be seen as an ultimatum by its critics, that its renovation is contingent on the project going through.
Fornelli rejected that notion at the July 20 meeting.
Still, Villar remarked at the amount of residents who came to voice opposition to the proposal in public comment that night.
Toni Nelson, a local resident who also spoke that night, said “Bottom line, we looked at this from every angle and we don’t see why we should be doing this.”
“This is fragile coastal property that we’ve been trying to protect, why would we put a rail project there?” she said. “It makes no sense.”