Los Angeles Times

San Diego sets to work on sea wall to protect bluffs

Emergency repairs costing $11 million seek to reinforce land under coastal railroad tracks that saw collapse.


SAN DIEGO — Constructi­on begins this month on a nearly 300-foot-long sea wall to protect the coastal bluffs below the heavily traveled railroad tracks in Del Mar.

The sea wall is the final stage of $11 million in emergency repairs needed to safeguard the tracks after a wide portion of the bluff collapsed in late February. The slide came within 35 feet of the railroad ties on the only train route between San Diego and Los Angeles and the rest of the West Coast.

Earlier work focused on regrading the slope, which is 50 to 70 feet high, and installing about 18 concrete-and-steel piles up to 60 feet deep at the upper level near the track. Train speeds were reduced for safety through the area for months, and all rail service was suspended on several weekends to complete the work done so far.

“Stabilizin­g the Del Mar bluffs is crucial to ensuring safe and reliable rail operations and creating a faster, fairer, cleaner transporta­tion system,” said Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who chairs the board of the San Diego Assn. of Government­s.

All coastal developmen­t, including sea walls, retaining walls and other bluff protection structures, require the approval of the California Coastal Commission. Generally, the commission opposes sea walls because they restrict public access to the beach and can contribute to coastal erosion. The commission makes exceptions, however, for emergency repairs to protect vital infrastruc­ture such as the railroad.

In cases such as the Del Mar bluff collapse, the commission allows the government­s associatio­n and other local agencies to begin repairs immediatel­y and seek approvals later.

That was the case when a powerful winter storm over the 2019 Thanksgivi­ng weekend caused significan­t bluff erosion near the tracks in Del Mar. Over the next few weeks, the associatio­n removed loose material from the steep slope and installed reinforcem­ent piles and a steel-plate retaining wall, then backfilled the area with concrete slurry.

“The emergency repair work was necessary to protect the railroad track bed and public safety, and is similar to previous upper bluff stabilizat­ion projects the commission has reviewed and approved on the Del Mar bluffs,” Coastal Commission staffers said when the completed repairs were approved on Aug. 12, 2020.

The emergency work this year has been more extensive but is expected to conclude with the sea wall.

Beachgoers in the area should avoid constructi­on zones for the next few weeks, officials say. The job will include placing more concrete-and-steel piles at beach level, then placing wooden beams between them to form the sea wall. The structure is designed to protect the base of the bluffs from erosion caused by waves and sea level rise.

Typical work hours are expected to be 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, depending on tides and surf, continuing

through the fall. Crews will use the North Torrey Pines State Beach parking lot as a staging area for heavy equipment, and flaggers will direct vehicles to and from the work area.

Long-term plans call for moving the railroad off the bluff and onto a new route through a tunnel beneath Del Mar. That solution is expected to cost several billion dollars and take decades to complete, but in recent months agencies including the San Diego Assn. of Government­s and the North County Transit District have made moves to expedite planning for the route.

The regional planning agency has overseen four stabilizat­ion projects since 2003 to preserve the 1.7 miles of track on the bluffs. The fourth phase of that work ended in January, shortly before the collapse that led to the current emergency repairs.

Two new studies released by the government­s associatio­n in August emphasized the need to control stormwater runoff in Del Mar to slow the erosion of the upper levels of the bluffs.

“Damage to the rail corridor as a result of concentrat­ed flow not being contained by existing drainage systems and flowing uncontroll­ed onto the railroad right-of-way has been significan­t in the last few years,” says a drainage study prepared for the associatio­n by the consulting firm HNTB of San Diego in June.

Commercial buildings, homes and other developmen­t built on hillsides near the beach have covered more ground and increased the peak runoff during storms, the study says. The storm drains are too small to contain the peak flow, and water runs across streets and properties toward the beach over the railroad right of way, causing more erosion.

The study recommends 15 drainage system improvemen­ts to be included in the next round of work, the fifth phase of the long-term stabilizat­ion efforts, scheduled to begin in 2023.

Those improvemen­ts include the replacemen­t of larger storm drains along some roads in Del Mar and new connection­s to channels and outlets to the beach.

The sixth and final phase of Del Mar stabilizat­ion projects is intended to keep the bluffs safe for train travel until the alternativ­e route through a tunnel can be completed.

North County Transit District commuter trains, Amtrak passenger service and BNSF Railway freight trains all travel the Del Mar bluffs as part of the coastal rail corridor, one of the busiest in the United States. The route had 44 passenger trains and six freight trains daily in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic reduced service in 2020.

Rail traffic is expected to increase to 78 passenger trains and 22 freight trains daily by 2030, according to the San Diego Assn. of Government­s.

 ?? Jarrod Valliere San Diego Union-Tribune ?? A BLUFF COLLAPSE in February came within 35 feet of railroad ties on the only train route between San Diego and Los Angeles. A sea wall is set to protect the bluffs from erosion caused by waves and sea level rise.
Jarrod Valliere San Diego Union-Tribune A BLUFF COLLAPSE in February came within 35 feet of railroad ties on the only train route between San Diego and Los Angeles. A sea wall is set to protect the bluffs from erosion caused by waves and sea level rise.

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