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Thursday, May 21, 2009 | The potential to re-establish a train stop at the Del Mar Fairgrounds took a major step toward becoming reality, again, at last week’s meeting of Sandag’s Transportation Committee.

Bing Crosby had established a train stop there in 1938, and for just short of 30 years trains brought race fans directly from Los Angeles to the track.

Reestablishing a rail platform at the rear of the fairground’s west parking lot, from which fairground event attendees can easily walk from Amtrak and Coaster trains directly into the grandstands has been in the fairground’s master plan since 1985, but has received no action.

In April 2008, when the Fair Board announced plans to build a condominium-hotel, health spas and corporate offices for the state employees at the fairgrounds, and proposed delaying the start of the train stop’s construction another 15 years, that was too far off track for many people and interest groups.

Local officials including Carlsbad Mayor “Bud” Lewis and City Councilman Matt Hall; the Encinitas City Council trio of Jerome Stocks, Maggie Houlihan and Teresa Barth; Dave Roberts of Solana Beach; and even former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre, joined a chorus of interest groups all calling for priority to be given to the train stop at the fairgrounds. The message to the Fair Board was simple: it was past time to quit the 23 years of planning and start the construction of the high priority train stop.

In March, 2008, Encinitas Mayor Jerome Stocks and Hall, both members of the Sandag Transportation Committee, were instrumental in adding the train stop’s design to the council of governments’ planning agenda.

Now, just over a year later the direct rail connection to the Del Mar Fairgrounds was again up for discussion of its funding potential.

The Sandag staff broke out the train platform and access ramp’s costs from the balance of the project: $5.4 million for a 1,000-foot long train top platform; $3.7 million for a 600-foot platform, with appropriate access ramps. The 1.1 miles of double tracking to Solana Beach to the north, and new double tracks into Del Mar to the south, plus the two new trestles over the river were budgeted at $72 million.

The breakthrough at the committee meeting came in the presentation of a “phased plan” prepared by citizen activists who pointed out that the entire $72 million plus $5.4 million project did not have to be initially built in order to achieve the two most important benefits: the train stop at the fairgrounds and a new trestle over the San Dieguito River.

Dredging the San Dieguito River is considered essential to the health of the $86 million lagoon and wetlands project being completed there. It will allow “tidal flushing” to take place. Construction of one new long span trestle and demolition of the old circa 1914 wooden trestle would permit dredging to begin.

The suggestion was to build the project in three phases.

In a parallel effort, County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, and Sandag Chief Executive Officer Gary Gallegos had each written the State of California Race Track Leasing Commission the first week in May suggesting that the commission include a provision in the State’s soon to be released call for bids for the race concession at Del Mar to include a cost-sharing negotiating point.

The concession contract of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club expires this year and Gallegos and Slater-Price were suggesting that given the attendance benefits such a stop could provide, cost participation by the new concessionaire would seem in order. The State Race Track Leasing Commission is responsible for negotiating that contract.

A study conducted in August 2008 and presented to Assemblyman Martin Garrick showed that in 2007 the Thoroughbred Club made just less than $1 million per day just from the betting at Del Mar. Concession revenue was in addition to that. Garrick is the author legislation which provides that Del Mar will receive at least two additional weeks of racing once Hollywood Park closes, scheduled for December 2009.

Given the benefits which the concessionaire will receive from the betting and the at-the-track concessions, Slater-Price and Gallegos were suggesting that the concessionaire’s funding the train stop should be placed on the negotiating table.

Stimulus Money Also Explored

Jerome Stocks from Encinitas was one of several committee members quick to endorse the “phased” approach citing the minimum cost of phase one which still achieves the train stop objective.

“I believe we should move quickly with the first phases of these plans so that they can be ‘shovel ready’ for inclusion in the next round of stimulus money,” Stocks suggested.

“If we can segment this project in order to get this platform operational, sooner rather than later, that will do a lot to reduce green house gasses, congestion and assistant in the movement of goods which currently gets clogged up in all that traffic,” Stokes noted.

Gallegos responded that the staff was working on recommendations as to where to invest planning funds to get projects shovel-ready so they are ready to move.

Bob Campbell, chairman of the North County Transit District, noted the benefit such a train stop would have provided during the recent fires when the fairgrounds served as a major evacuation site. “Having direct rail access could have a huge difference in being able to service people in a rapid manner with public transit,” noted Campbell.

One committee member recalled that in prior year’s discussions of the train stop the representatives of the cities of Solana Beach and Del Mar had been un-enthusiastic and wondered if this had changed.

Responding, Del Mar Councilman Carl Hillard, said “I want to add my support for sooner rather than later when it comes to putting in the platform.” Hillard cited how Del Mar is heavily impacted by the traffic that comes to the fair and the race track. “When I-5 backs up, cars get off and take to the surface streets and go though the neighborhoods. This creates a safety problem for us, plus it is frustrating for people trying to get to the fair or the track.” Hillard said the city was supportive of this phased solution and wanted to be included in the planning process.

Matt Hall, councilman from Carlsbad and Vice Chair of the Sandag committee, applauded the citizen effort for bringing the understanding of the phased approach before the committee, and for their work with Supervisor Slater-Price and the Sandag staff to explore the potential of funding participation by the race concessionaire.

Hall noted that in addition to the train platform, the ability to begin to dredge the river during phase two was of great importance to the health of the ecological preserve being created there. “When you add all the wins together which this idea of phasing provides, I think we can see the logic of this approach,” Hall said.

The staff was instructed to return with budget costs and planning estimates for the phased approach as soon as possible.

Helen and Richard Nielsen-Eckfield are local activists who have been advocating for the new train stop for the past three years.

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