SANDAG responds to 11th-hour trolley shift woes; e-mails show agency may have reached accord with Mormon temple before hearing public input in La Jolla
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By Pat Sherman
More than 100 people filled the community room of La Jolla Village Square mall March 13 to ask officials with the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) why the location at which the San Diego Trolley extension would cross over Interstate 5 was shifted south to within 42 yards of the Cape La Jolla Gardens (CLJG) condo complex.
Irate CLJG residents told SANDAG the trolley’s close proximity to their complex would diminish their quality of life and property values.
In June 2013, SANDAG hosted five public workshops in the area to address project impacts outlined in a draft environmental impact report (DEIR) for the project (released in May 2013), at which many CLJG residents were present. (The period to comment on the DEIR also closed in June 2013.) The DEIR showed the trolley crossing I-5 at the furthest point north SANDAG has yet proposed (as represented by a blue line in the map on page AA3).
After the public comment period for the DEIR closed, however, SANDAG moved the I-5 crossing south by 360 feet to be within close proximity to the northeast corner of CLJG (as represented by the map’s green line), largely at the behest of Mormon temple representatives, SANDAG officials said.
However, SANDAG e-mails obtained by La Jolla Light show that temple representatives met with SANDAG Executive Director Gary Gallegos and County Supervisor Ron Roberts on April 23 to advocate for the southward shift — two months before the public was asked to consider the blue line configuration.
In a March 27 e-mail to SANDAG Mid-Coast Project Manager Greg Gastelum, Allen Haynie, a lobbyist who is also a member of the Mormon temple, wrote: “The representatives of the Church are very anxious to meet with Supervisor Roberts and Gary to discuss their concerns and hopefully find a solution. After meeting with you and (SANDAG consultant) Susanne Bankhead, I went back and looked at the prior alignment (the map’s yellow line) that had been provided to the Church at the time the Church was asked to publicly support the alignment, which it did at a SANDAG hearing. The alignment the Church was shown and that the Church supported crossed over the I-5 freeway much further to the south of the San Diego Temple than the alignment you presented during our most recent meeting. I can’t emphasize how important this issue is to the Church.”
In an April 25 e-mail to Gallegos and Roberts, Luke Rothey, who oversees special real estate projects for the Mormon Church, thanked Roberts and Gallegos for “meeting with us to discuss a mutually agreeable alignment and flyover design,” going on to request electronic versions of exhibits shared during the April 23 meeting, which showed the currently contested green alignment (which SANDAG says its board approved for insertion into the project’s final environmental document in November).
Michael Krupp, president of the CLJG Homeowners Association, said he learned about the realignment at a Nov. 13 meeting with SANDAG representatives.
Addressing SANDAG officials during last week’s meeting, Saby David, who owns units at CLJG, asked what specific impacts temple officials were concerned with, given that the point where the blue line would cross I-5 was still considerably closer to CLJG than to the Mormon temple.
“You had it set up on the blue line for a reason — that you made your study and found that that’s the least impact on all the neighborhoods around,” David said. “We need to know … why you made the decision to move it to a point where Cape La Jolla Gardens is being affected.”
Anne Roberts, who purchased a condo at CLJG a year ago, said an environmental report for the crossing proposed in 1995 (the yellow line) noted significant environmental impacts to CLJG residents that also apply to the current green alignment, and should be considered today.
John Haggerty, SANDAG Division Director of Rail, and project director for the trolley’s extension to UTC, said a more recent environmental analysis showed no additional noise impacts from the green line and that visual impacts were “really subjective in this area.” He noted that the yellow line alignment proposed in 1995 would have routed the trolley closer to CLJG. It would have run along nearly the entire east side of the complex, instead of only its northeast corner.
“There probably would have been sound walls (added) in this area at that time,” he said.
Joan Bennett, who does not reside at the complex, and said she rides the trolley when she can, also expressed her support for the blue line alignment.
“I get why everybody’s upset,” Bennett said. “You look at that blue line and it’s by far the best.”
District 1 City Councilmember Sherri Lightner (who represents La Jolla and UTC and also attended the meeting) said she did not learn about the most recent alignment tweak until January, when CLJG Homeowners Association contacted her office.
Lightner said she met with SANDAG’s Gallegos in early March to discuss the change.
“What was in the original DEIR was what the community blessed, and what the community saw,” Lightner said. “I let him know that … to have this change at this late date was unacceptable. … I will stand with you all on this because I know what the original design was.”
Lightner stressed that the final environmental report is not yet complete, and that “opportunities” remain for further revisions.
The $1.7 billion trolley extension from San Diego’s Old Town includes three stops in Mission Bay and six stops in the UC San Diego/UTC area, with half of the project slated for funding by the Federal Transit Administration, Haggerty said. An average of 2,400 riders per day are expected to get on and off the trolley at the Noble Drive station (the closest station to CLJG).
Haggerty said that in proposing the current alignment, SANDAG also was trying to “maximize the use of the public right-of-way” (freeway land under the auspices of Caltrans,) “limit takes of private property” and “make sure that the trolley speed stays up.
“We’ve also tried to balance stakeholder needs on both sides of the freeway,” he said, noting that existing background noise (largely from the freeway) averages 71 decibels. The sound of the trolley passing CLJG would be only about 59 decibels, he said.
“Though you will be able to hear the trolley going by, it does not increase this background noise level,” Haggerty said, though adding that noise from a 30-day construction period will exceed 71 decibels.
“A lot of that work has to be done at night because of the freeway, in order to close lanes,” he said. “When we know the noise is going to exceed the background noise, we would be willing to relocate folks for those nights.”
Haggerty said SANDAG will publish a notice this summer giving the public 30 days to comment on the final environmental document for the project, after which the agency will publish a notice of determination on the project. In late 2014 the Federal Transportation Administration will issue a record of decision, which becomes the final environmental document under the National Environmental Policy Act approval process.
If approved, the project would enter the final design phase in 2015, after which SANDAG would begin utility relocation and private property acquisition, which includes taking property needed to build stations at Tecolote Road and Clairemont Drive, and from Balboa Avenue to state Route 52 and along both sides of Genesse Avenue (at I-5).
Haggerty said SANDAG would also seek community input on the Nobel Drive trolley station design (and others) this summer.
Though one attendee suggested relocating the elevated tracks to a sub-grade level to reduce or remove conflicts with intersections, noise and the alignment, Haggerty said the cost of locating the line below grade would be “tremendously above what this region right now, I think, can afford.”
Julie Hamilton, an attorney hired by the CLJG Homeowners Association, asked if SANDAG studied noise levels from 4:30-7:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. (when the trolley operates but freeway traffic is lighter) to assess whether trolley noise could exceed background noise levels at these times.
“That will occur as soon as you get a lull in the traffic noise,” said Steve Wolf, a noise expert hired by SANDAG, who conceded that it is “very possible” the trolley could wake residents during these early morning and late evening hours.
“There’s nobody going to be sleeping in the church from 9:30 till 12:30 when this things shuts off or at 4:30 when it starts up,” another CLJG resident said. “I don’t care what you’re writing on your paper, but we are being impacted.”
Asked if the stations would increase crime in the area, Haggerty responded, “All I can point to is studies that SANDAG and the Metropolitan Transit System have done in the past that consistently show no additional crime in the areas of trolley stations.”
Following attendees’ cynical expressions of disbelief, Haggerty added, “I didn’t make the studies.”
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