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By Lillian Boyd

Dana Point City Council heard a presentation on a proposed train track enhancement project for Capistrano Beach on Tuesday, July 20, where Metrolink officials were met with criticism and opposition.

Metrolink, in coordination with the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), is proposing to extend 1.2 miles of railroad track constructed adjacent to the existing track from Victoria Boulevard running south and reconnecting to the main track near the rail crossing at Beach Road. The siding track would allow trains to pass each other without stopping, reducing greenhouse gas emissions caused by idling trains.

Metrolink is lead agency for environmental clearance, while OCTA is tasked with handling outreach.

Photo: Metrolink’s Passenger trains travel from 45-90 miles per hour on its main track. Photo: Lillian Boyd

According to Metrolink, the proposed project would reduce delays, increase safety and provide more reliable service—but it is currently in the environmental review and preliminary design phase.

The project also proposes to replace wooden ties with concrete ties, replace the single-track railroad bridge over Coast Highway with two single-track bridges, add fencing along Coast Highway and construct retaining walls. While officials stated that the Serra Siding Extension Project would deliver more frequent, more reliable rail services throughout Southern California, Councilmember Richard Viczorek clarified during Tuesday’s meeting that this was necessarily a “Dana Point project.”

“What is the problem you are trying to solve with this project?” asked Councilmember Michael Villar, whose district represents where the project would be located.

To add additional service to Orange County lines, to meet the job needs and additional population growth of this region, answered Justin Fornelli, chief of program delivery for Metrolink.

According to the agenda report, the project is part of a broader regional transportation plan with realized benefits for local and regional communities. The project would reportedly enhance safety and reduce emissions. Built in 1928, the aging Coast Highway bridge would be replaced with a bridge infrastructure that utilizes updated engineering standards. The agenda report also outlined the project’s accommodation for increase in ridership.

“Are you a resident of Dana Point or Capistrano Beach?” Villar asked Fornelli

“I am not,” Fornelli responded.

“Well, I am. And I go down to Capo Beach just about every day,” Villar said. “When I’m standing at Capo Beach, I look at the train, and there’s no one ever on it. I’m not exaggerating, it’s not hyperbole … it doesn’t match what you’re saying.”

Members of the public also spoke in opposition of the project’s supposed role in supporting ridership, calling the data cited into question.

“The (Lossan study) projected 34% increase in the Orange County population from 2011 to 2040. The actual population increase between 2011 and 2021 has been 2.3%. If anything, it seems to be slowing down,” said Capistrano Beach resident Buck Hill.

According to Metrolink, 43 passenger trains run daily through Dana Point on average, and 70 passenger trains run through Orange County daily. The agency anticipates a boost in ridership as the region exits the pandemic in years to come.

Lossan is the Amtrak service that uses the Pacific Surfliner. Lossan’s 2013 study also points out issues with environmental vulnerabilities along the coastline with sea-level rise.

As coastal cities have assessed their vulnerabilities to sea-level rise, officials have grappled with solutions that will protect the railways. Capistrano Beach has seen an extensive amount of coastal erosion since 2018, losing its boardwalk, basketball court and restrooms as a result of inclement weather and fierce tides.

“Bottom line, we’ve looked at this for several months now, and we don’t see why we should be doing this,” said Toni Nelson, a Capistrano Beach resident. “This is fragile coastal property that we’ve been trying to protect.”

Since the project’s scoping meeting in February, in which about 60 people participated, Metrolink and OCTA have received about 100 written comments—the majority of which are in opposition.

Metrolink was awarded $763.7 million in Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program (TIRCP) funds in 2018 for the SCORE Program. According to the agency’s report, grant funds are committed for projects such as the Serra Siding Extension Project to deliver more frequent, more reliable rail services throughout Southern California, as well as significantly invest in improving frequency and performance of rail services to Orange County.

Grant funding will include much-needed bridge replacement after some rehabilitative work was done about five years ago. While there have been talks on a potential train station in Dana Point, it would not be part of the project. As approved by OCTA’s fiscal 2021-2022 budget, OCTA will conduct a “South County Rail Access Study” to look into the feasibility of train station locations in South Orange County.

As Metrolink prepares an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the agency is seeking input on the scope and content of the project’s environmental document. The Notice of Preparation (NOP), which contains a description of the project, is available on Metrolink’s website. Comments are only accepted in writing and can be submitted by emailing or by mail, addressing it to Chris Haskell, SCORE Deputy Program Manager, 900 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 1500, Los Angeles, CA 90017.

The deadline to submit comments has been extended to Saturday, July 31.

The project is currently in the environmental and preliminary design phase, which is expected to be completed by mid-2022. If the project clears environmental approval, a final design is expected to begin and then completed in mid-2023. Construction would then be slated to begin in early 2025 and take up to two years.

As far as the role that the agencies would like the City of Dana Point to play: “I think the community has a lot of concerns, and we want to work with the city to address those,” said Fornelli.

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