tracks ’n’ ties
Eye On:
California’s Coastal
Rail Trail
The story of the ambitious Coastal
Rail Trail started with John Ross
having a very bad day more than 25
years ago. Today, fragments of the
mile route are coming together
alongside a busy railroad corridor on
California’s scenic southern coast.
It all began
in 1986. “I was
driving my 1967
Datsun down by
Mission Bay when
the gas tank fell out
and was dragging
along the ground,”
chuckles Ross. “I
lived in Del Mar,
about 15 miles
away, so I decided
to walk home using
the railroad as a
The experience
changed his life. An
attorney and avid
bike rider, Ross
began pursuing the
idea of developing
a trail along the tracks. He presented
the suggestion to the Atchison, Topeka
and Santa Fe Railway in a letter a few
months later, but the company showed
only lukewarm interest.
Fortuitously, the railroad came into
public ownership a few years later;
Amtrak, the Coaster commuter line,
and BNSF Railway freight trains now
share the corridor. The rail-with-trail
idea gained traction with the San Diego
Association of Governments (SANDAG),
a regional planning agency with represen-
tatives from San Diego County and the
city governments within in its bound-
aries. In 2000, SANDAG initiated an
engineering study of Ross’ proposed trail
and found the project to be feasible.
The trail moved forward slowly—
even now, only a handful of miles have
been completed—but the project is
picking up steam. “We have a regional
bike plan and, within it, an early
action program,” says Stephan Vance,
SANDAG’s senior regional planner.
Vance says the program includes “the
high-priority projects that we want to
complete within the next 10 years.
The Coastal Rail Trail is one of them.”
Although the overarching responsi-
bility for the Coastal Rail Trail falls to
SANDAG, each of the communities
along the way, from Oceanside to San
Diego, has a say in its individual sec-
tions. The first city to act was Solana
Beach. A mile-long stretch through
the city was completed in 2005. “One
thing about Solana Beach is that we’re
very responsive to our public,” says Lesa
Heebner, a city councilmember. “We’re
such a small community that what
we do makes a difference in the daily
life of people, so we implement things
As with Ross, the trail changed her
life, setting her on course for a career
in city government. When the design
for the Solana Beach trail segment was
first presented to the public, Heebner,
a longtime city resident, thought it was
just hideous.” The plan was to make it
very urban with little vegetation along
its length. Says Heebner, “I thought: Am
I going to just sit back and do nothing?”
She led a grassroots effort to have the
trail redesigned to better suit the city’s
outdoorsy, seaside vibe, and collected
signatures for the redesign peti-
tion. A landscape architect was engaged
to design a more pleasant, meandering
Clockwise from top: Schmidt Design Group, Inc; SANDAG; City of Carlsbad
Oceanside to San Diego
Used Railroad Corridor:
The tracks are owned by the North
County Transit District and the
Metropolitan Transit System.
Proposed Surface:
Asphalt or
concrete; varies by community
Top, the Coastal Rail Trail’s
beautiful landscaping in
Solana Beach and, left, the next
generation of rail-trail fans
scoot along the trail in Carlsbad.
Above, the archway at Solana
Beach is a feature of the trail.