Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

The most popular answer to saving a billion-dollar-a-year rail economy that’s perilously perched on Del Mar’s crumbling cliffside appears to be: boring great tunnels through the hills of the city.

Engineers poked at a few locations already, drilling hundreds of feet for soil samples in locations the tunnel might go. One spot tested March 4 was in the 400 block of Primavera Drive along a quiet, speed bump-laden canyon street flanked by multimillion-dollar homes.

The coastal bluffs that currently support a single set of train tracks seem to be growing increasingly prone to landslides. Building a tunnel farther inland to support a double set of train tracks will be expensive, time-consuming and tedious, but there’s no reason to expect the bluffs will stop crumbling. And the region’s already spent millions to try and stabilize them, and restabilize them again.

“I’ve been here since 1986,” said David Druker, a Del Mar city councilman. “And the last five to six years have been the worst, just terrible in terms of amount of bluff that has eroded away because it’s pretty much constant.”

Regional planning agencies have four tunnel routes, but the favored one would dig a set of tunnels from the south side of Del Mar at Carmel Valley Road through the mesa to the Del Mar Fairgrounds. The route allows trains to travel the fastest, according to a 2017 study by the San Diego Association of Governments, the agency responsible for getting the project done.

“It’s 100 percent doable,” said Thomas Feistel, senior staff geologist at Earth Mechanics Inc., of tunneling in Del Mar.

While the bluffs are made of sandstone weakened by rain, wind and ocean waves, the sandstone farther inland is compacted and sits atop sturdy bedrock that would support a tunnel structure, he said.

“From a scientific and technical standpoint, there’s no effect on the surface whatsoever,” Feistel said.

But building the tunnel isn’t the hardest part. It’s securing all the rights to the land they need to bore through to create a new public right-of-way.

“Building a tunnel underneath private property generally means you have to get permission from the property owner,” said Michael Jenkins, a municipal law expert who teaches at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law and litigates on behalf of many California cities.

That has the potential to dig the region into a legal hole, metaphorically speaking.

Why Move the Tracks at All?

Del Mar is lucky the two-mile portion of railroad track on its beach bluff hasn’t yet suffered as major a collapse as, say, Highway 1 in Big Sur earlier this year when a portion of the road dropped into the sea.

A private railroad company built Del Mar’s tracks in the early 1900s as a link between the border and Los Angeles. Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad company eventually sold the tracks to the North County Transit District in the 1990s, but retained exclusive rights to run freight traffic in the San Diego region. BNSF didn’t return multiple requests for comment.

del mar cliff collapse
A bluff collapsed on Feb. 28, 2021, near railroad tracks in Del Mar. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“Most railroad companies were having a hard time making money and were approached by governments to say, sell us your tracks and we’ll maintain them but use them for commuter rail,” said Druker.

But the added commuter services – Amtrak, a federal passenger train service, and NCTD’s commuter rail, COASTER – have to share the strip of single rail tracks. For context, 75 percent of the railway in the region is double track, or a pair of parallel tracks. But all that train traffic bottlenecks into a single lane once it reaches the bluffs of Del Mar. That makes it harder for freight (which runs really slowly) and commuter rail (which can run at high speeds if the infrastructure allows) to operate efficiently at the same time.

That’s a big reason why the region’s transit leaders want to dig a tunnel away from the bluffs.

“What we’re trying to do is make the overall trip more competitive with the automobile,” said Matt Tucker, executive director of NCTD.

A set of tunnels and tracks means commuter trains can run faster and, transit leaders hope, and become an enticing option for travel instead of drivers idling on freeways.

Mother nature is the other reason to move the tracks, transit leaders say.

The bluffs lose half a foot of soil per year, on average, according to a 2001 study by NCTD. They lose much more during a collapse, like the one on Feb. 28, which caused a cascade of bluff to blow through a concrete sea wall and spill onto the shore. At high tide, it’s nearly impossible to walk the beach a safe distance from the cliff’s edge unless you get your feet wet.

The bluffs will likely lose more soil on average as the planet warms because sea levels are rising and high tides are getting higher, bringing greater wave energy to eat away the cliff bottoms. That makes cliffs top-heavy, causing their sandier, looser top soils to slide. Scientists are only just beginning to understand these physical dynamics with the hope that collapses might be more predictable in the future.

Druker says some blame is due to excessive lawn watering in Del Mar, which causes excess moisture to rush down streets and eventually, over the bluffs.

“It’s difficult for (the Council) to turn around and say you can’t irrigate,” Druker said. “But when people build new stuff, they go through a strict design review process that demands people use as little water as possible for their vegetation.”

A Tunnel Means Mining Property Titles

If regional leaders want a tunnel, they’ll need permission. That means securing subsurface rights from whoever owns the property on the surface, said John Haggerty, director of engineering and construction for the San Diego Association of Governments.

“A lot of times if you buy a house, you don’t own all the rights underneath the house. We’d have to know who was the owner of those underground rights and purchase them,” Haggerty said.

Real estate law experts say when property is purchased, the owner owns not only the surface property but the land all the way to the center of the Earth. Those are called subsurface rights.

Workers dig up soil samples from Avenida Primavera in Del Mar to research the possibility of building a train tunnel underneath the neighborhood. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

There are also mineral rights – if there are oil or natural gas deposits underneath your property, for example, you own those too. But mineral or subsurface, these rights aren’t always held by the property owner. It’s very common for developers or sellers to hold onto them, “severing” them from the title of the property to sell at a later date when it’s lucrative.

“If you don’t read the deed and buy property that excludes mineral rights, that means those could change hands hundreds of times and 10 years down the road, someone could come to you and say, I own the mineral rights under your house,” said Jenkins, the USC lecturer.

That’s especially common in places like Long Beach and Los Angeles built atop rich oil fields. Oil companies have long tried to cut deals with property owners to allow for slant or horizontal drilling underneath homes.

Del Mar’s tunnel would likely be bored through the bedrock of the mesa, maybe using a technique that’s been described as a tin can churning through a loaf of bread.

Before any boring can begin, NCTD needs to secure a public right of way wherever the tunnel will go, and that means researching every individual property title affected. The district could use eminent domain, where the government uses its power to take private property for public use in exchange for compensation, or purchase properties to get the land.

SANDAG’s 2017 study also shows “a significant amount” of office and residential buildings would have to be acquired in the northern portion of the favored tunnel’s path, nearer to the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Not to mention relocating sewer, water, gas and storm drain facilities.

The other thing that could trip up the tunnel project is zoning.

Zoning likely changed many times over the decades. But most zoning ordinances have to explicitly allow different types of land uses.

“Most zoning ordinances have a provision that says, if a use is not expressly permitted, then it is presumed to be prohibited,” Jenkins said.

In other words, if the zoning of the land where the tunnel’s being considered isn’t already considered a transit corridor – a place where you can put a train or a road – the city might have to rezone it.

SANDAG said only one of the four tunnel options (the one along Camino Del Mar, which is already a road) is an existing transportation corridor. But rezoning is not required for SANAG transportation projects because the agency isn’t subject to local zoning, wrote SANDAG public information officer Jessica Gonzales in an email.

“Selection of an alignment would include extensive outreach to the cities and residents, and an alternatives analysis and full environmental document, including public comment, would be prepared as part of the project approval process,” Gonzales wrote.

The region plans to spend a total of $128 million to restabilize the cliffs with various projects since 2000. That includes $100 million that hasn’t yet been spent and an unplanned $6.5 million to fix the collapse from Feb. 28.

The public is on the hook to cover these costs, either through government grants, gas taxes or increased transit fares. The private sector would have been responsible for dealing with the crumbling bluffs underneath the tracks if it hadn’t sold them to NCTD years ago.

The current private freight user – BNSF railroad company – pays a few million in annual maintenance fees, but probably wouldn’t foot much of the bill for a tunnel. Their rights to operate on the tracks, wherever they’re relocated, will likely remain. If two sets of tracks are built, that means the region has some bargaining room to sell private freight companies more time slots for their trains to run. That’s one way more private dollars could go toward the $3 billion price tag for this project.

The planned stabilization projects should keep the bluffs secure for another 20 to 50 years, which should be enough time to get the tunnel project planned and underway, NCTD’s Tucker said.

“Unless the Lord comes back and adds more land (to the bluffs) we’re going to have to harmonize the infrastructure and land use here to make as much of a walkable and livable community as possible, creating less conflict for cars, trains and bikes,” he said.

Council Divisions

Del Mar Mayor Terry Gaasterland told the San Diego Union-Tribune that moving the tracks off the bluff and adding double tracks “is long overdue.”

But not all on the Del Mar City Council agree.

Councilman Dan Quirk said he’s “strongly opposed” to the tunnel idea.

“It would cost billions, take 20 years to complete, create a lot of potential environmental problems and have minimal benefit because so few people ride the train,” Quirk wrote in an email.

Jenkins, the attorney and USC lecturer, said the environmental impact of tunneling often trips up projects more than subsurface rights. He pointed to the legal tumult wrought by Los Angeles Metro’s subway extension underneath Beverly Hills High School.

“Getting the environmental work done to everyone’s satisfaction is another huge obstacle,” he said. “There may be impacts that are not mitigatable,” or avoidable.

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