Train tracks at water’s edge, South San Clemente. Rip rap boulders obliterate the former beach. Photo credit: OCTA

Yes, you read that right. The estimated cost for a 2.5-mile tunnel to address the eroding bluff top tracks in Del Mar and a 10-mile segment in coastal San Clemente/Dana Point could run as much as $20 billion. Daily ridership for the three train services operating along the 65 miles from San Diego to San Clemente is tiny, currently only about 4,000 1-way trips per day. $5 million per 1-way trip ($20 billion/4,000) is a breathtaking boondoggle — even in California, a state known for its transit boondoggles.

Last year, a group of Dana Point citizens halted the proposed $50 million Serra Siding double-track project along an eroding coastline by asking pragmatic questions that Orange County Transit Authority (OCTA) simply couldn’t answer. Now, citizens from Del Mar and South Orange County are joining forces to demand a complete, thorough, and transparent cost-benefit analysis before $20 billion in taxpayer dollars is spent to band- aid the coastal alignment – a route that transports well below 1% of regional freight and mostly empty passenger trains along a dangerously eroding coast. At the same time, Save Our Beaches San Clemente is raising public awareness of the train track’s beach- killing rip rap revetment which has proved to be an environmental disaster – halting lateral trail and direct beach access and exacerbating instead of mitigating erosion along the sliding Cypress Shore bluffs. Citizens are coalescing around two major demands:

Stop destroying beaches- NOW

In the past two years OCTA has dumped a 70-foot width of rip rap boulders along a stretch of south San Clemente shoreline to protect tracks caught between high surf and a sliding bluff. Today, the once popular beach is obliterated. The agency’s 2021 Climate Study reveals its long term strategy to combat erosion and sea level rise – tons of rock, hard armoring, 5 foot walls and wave deflectors. The problem with this plan is that it actually exacerbates erosion and devastates other stakeholders – SoCal’s vibrant tourism industry, its businesses, residents, and every person who seeks to enjoy our rapidly disappearing beaches.

These practices must stop. A single agency, even a railroad, does not have the right to unmitigated destruction of our beaches – especially in the name of shoring up a doomed line with little freight and minimal, declining ridership.

Provide a cost-benefit analysis that justifies extremely low ridership and freight against an outrageous $20 billion cost

Citizens hear the same statistic repeated by OCTA, SANDAG, RailPAC and a plethora of politicians: “the Lossan (Los Angeles, San Diego – San Luis Obispo) Rail Corridor carries 8 million passengers and more than $1 billion worth of freight every year”. This sounds impressive, but really isn’t. Quoting annual ridership numbers for a 351-mile line with most activity centered around Los Angeles obfuscates reality, distracts from nearly empty trains in endangered segments, and produces a false narrative to justify inordinate public investment. And claiming that $1 billion of freight is significant to the state of California, which transports more than $2.3 trillion in freight annually, is preposterous.

This is why citizens are demanding cost-benefit analyses be conducted by OCTA and SANDAG and discussed in open, transparent public meetings. Key issues to be addressed include:

  1. The environmental damage that coastal rail has caused, particularly in San Clemente.
  2. Accurate daily ridership data specific to the impacted areas, showing boardings and exits by station.
  3. Actual annual freight volumes, and the cost-sharing allocation (if any) to be required of privately owned rail operator, BNSF.
  4. Actual military routine and emergency needs (in reality, CampPendleton rarely uses coastal rail).
  5. Current I-5 and I-15 highway passenger and freight volumes (which are extremely large), capacity available during non-peak hours, and capacity/cost for future expansion. This will allow for direct comparison to rail volumes.
  6. An analysis of alternative options, including repurposing the tracks as a coastal trail.

These studies will likely show a combination of extremely high costs, very low benefits, and significant environmental damage from the LOSSAN coastal rail segment, leading to an inevitable and common-sense conclusion: Taxpayers won’t tolerate $20 billion in spending to relocate an obsolete and ineffective rail line that is destroying beaches and creating many other conflicts along its route. Working together with honest, comprehensive data, we can do so much better.

SANDAG will be hosting a town hall meeting on this issue in Del Mar on August 30 at 6:30PM. Citizens are urged to get involved. Contact and/or to join the fight for our beaches and against extraordinary financial waste.

Dan Quirk is Deputy Mayor of Del Mar and a founder of the Surf Line Trail Project, an organization advocating for the conversion of these problematic train tracks into a coastal trail. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame, where he studied finance and history. 

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,  the group updates the community via periodic newsletters and daily postings at Nelson writes frequently on topics related to coastal erosion at Voice of OC and as a community contributor at and can be contacted at

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