Seeking to secure the future of railroad transportation through South Orange County, the Orange County Transportation Authority’s Board of Directors this week approved the beginning stages of necessary analysis.
The board’s vote on Monday, March 13, allows OCTA staff to initiate the contracting process—a request for proposals (RFP)—to find a consultant for the proposed South Coast Rail Infrastructure Feasibility Study and Alternatives Concepts Analysis.
The consulting firm that wins the bid will be tasked with spending about 24 months studying the approximately 7-mile stretch of the rail line running through Dana Point, San Clemente, and unincorporated areas of both Orange and San Diego Counties, according to an OCTA staff report.
Given the coastal storm surges and other environmental factors that have negatively affected the railroad, causing the need for repeated maintenance and delays, the study is meant to help prioritize future rail planning efforts and assess all issues related to the desired operation of the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo (LOSSAN) corridor.
“One of the goals of the study will be to identify, assess, and evaluate short- and medium-term solutions with the goal of protecting the rail line in place,” OCTA said in the report. “A separate study will focus on long-term options, including rail line relocation. OCTA is seeking state/federal grants for the long-term study.”
The initial phase of the study is estimated to cost $2 million and includes a handful of goals such as developing options that could protect the coastal rail line at various sea levels; gaining an understanding of the climate’s impacts to the train tracks; identifying possible solutions for beach erosion; and consulting with agencies and stakeholders.
According to the OCTA, grant funding to pay for the Phase I study has already been identified, while monies to foot the costs associated with the necessary improvements are expected to be identified through the study.
As part of the second phase of the study—estimated to cost $5 million—OCTA is looking to partner with LOSSAN, state and federal agencies; develop options to protect, “or potentially” move the rail line; create an action plan; and consult with residents and stakeholders.
Board Director Katrina Foley, also the Fifth District Board Supervisor of Orange County, said the matter was one of her top priorities after commuter rail service between South Orange County and North San Diego County was suspended last fall—the second time in as many years—because of track movement detected at Cotton’s Point, just below the Cyprus Shore community.
“Orange County remains decades behind on our coastal rail and sand replenishment planning for our South County beaches,” Foley said in a media release on Monday. “Giant boulders now occupy the spaces where surfers accessed the water, and residents and tourists previously enjoyed sandy beaches, and which also served to protect our railroad corridor.”
As part of ongoing efforts to secure the slope on which the track sits, crews have placed riprap, or large boulders, on the coastal side of the rail line.
“We must move with urgency to take a proactive approach to addressing the coastal erosion threatening our coastal economy, our national defense, our homes, and our quality of life,” Foley added in the release.
Emergency construction work to stabilize the tracks in southern San Clemente has been underway since November, after the OCTA governing board gave the county’s transportation agency the green light to hire a contractor for the roughly $12 million project.
For months, crews have been working to drive large metal anchors into about 700 feet of the slope adjacent to the railroad track to prevent it from pushing the track further toward the coast, San Clemente Times previously reported.
Construction was initially estimated to be completed in February; however, the recent spate of torrential rains has delayed much of the work. The project is now expected to be completed around mid-April, according to OCTA.
“I look forward to beginning regular meetings with stakeholders on solution planning,” Foley said in her release. “We must look past temporary fixes. This rail corridor study and concurrent sand replenishment efforts are necessary steps towards identifying and implementing long-term solutions to prevent further coastal erosion and its impacts on our way of life.”
Foley has said she is working with Rep. Mike Levin, State Assemblymember Laurie Davies, and State Sen. Catherine Blakespear to secure more appropriations for sand replenishment, in addition to taking upcoming trips to Sacramento and Washington, D.C., where she will focus on the same topic.
“It hasn’t really been part of the space of transportation until now,” Foley said. “We hope that we can get some things moving more quickly.”
OCTA staff said that after they finish the 120- to 180-day process of contracting for the study, there will be continuous updates as they look to engage with stakeholders such as the Department of Defense, San Diego County and more entities.
The vote comes roughly two weeks after staff presented the board with a framework for seeking funding to support continued railroad usage, and for working with local, state and federal partners to understand the causes of coastal erosion.
A Feb. 27 media release from OCTA included a statement from Board Chair and Yorba Linda Mayor Gene Hernandez.
“When we began the emergency stabilization effort (in San Clemente), it was clear that we needed to address the immediate issues first and also to speed up the process of working with all stakeholders to find longer-term solutions,” said Hernandez. “I’m pleased to see this comprehensive effort moving forward.”
Additionally, the State Senate recently established the LOSSAN Rail Corridor Resiliency Subcommittee, which Blakespear is chairing. The committee is tasked with studying the infrastructure of the corridor and ensuring its future.
Shawn Raymundo contributed to this report.