San Diego A funny thing has been happening to the old Coronado Branch Railroad on its way to recognition as a historical landmark. The California Historical Resources Commission designated the rail historic in the fall of 2001. A year later the commission changed its mind. Railroad preservationists think that pressure from South Bay politicos got to the board. This summer, county supervisor and former Chula Vista councilman Greg Cox petitioned the San Diego City Council to overturn the rail's historic designation by the city's Historic Resources Board. At its September 7 session, the council granted Cox's request by a 7-1 vote, overriding the recommendation of city manager P. Lamont Ewell to retain the historic status. Only councilwoman Donna Frye voted against the reversal.
In 2001 the City of Chula Vista and the San Diego Port District were pushing to pave over some of the Coronado Branch tracks so that a bayfront shopping center and parking lot could be built without interference. This summer, however, Save Our Heritage Organisation won a lawsuit against the port and the Metropolitan Transit Development Board that prevents paving over the tracks. The issue in the current round of fighting is whether bike riders and walkers can share with trains the railroad's old right-of-way as it passes through the South San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge at the tip of San Diego Bay. Originally built in 1888, the Coronado Branch, also known as the Belt Line, ran from downtown San Diego near the Santa Fe Depot to the southern tip of San Diego Bay. From there it rounded the bay and continued north along the Strand to Coronado. According to Richard V. Dodge's book, Rails of the Silvergate, John D. Spreckels purchased the line and the Hotel Del Coronado in the 1890s. He even lived in the hotel for a while and commuted by train to his office in downtown San Diego.
Although the Coronado Branch is now defunct, railroad aficionados would like to see trains run on its tracks again. For several years, supervisor Cox has promoted use of the railroad's right-of-way for the Bayshore Bike Trail in the wildlife reserve. He thinks that the bike path would be incompatible with trains running on adjacent tracks. Businessman Ed Kravitz is an ardent believer in future use of the railroad. He hopes his company, San Diego Railway Partners, can operate a restaurant on trains that ply the line, allowing diners to enjoy both their fare and views of the bay and marshlands to the west. But he thinks that bayfront development supporters in the South Bay are doing everything they can to thwart any use of the railroad. "Everybody is trying to take a piece out of it to make it inoperable," says Kravitz, who sees Cox's bike path as taking one of the pieces.
Cox argues that use of a foot and bike path would be more environmentally friendly than both the path and trains running through the wildlife reserve. The appeal to environmental concerns by a South Bay development supporter is an irony worth noting. But Cox has long supported the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's nature reserve complex in San Diego County. And as a city councilman, he was instrumental in creating the Chula Vista Nature Reserve on the bay front. Early this year Cox sent a letter to Mendel Stewart, project director for the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex, seeking support. The letter asked for answers to several questions about the Coronado Branch right-of-way's use by trains and a bike path in the wildlife refuge. On January 27 Stewart wrote Cox back, saying that doubling use of the right-of-way would cause greater harm to the reserve's wildlife habitat than use by the bike trail alone. Cox submitted Stewart's letter to the San Diego City Council for its September 7 deliberation over whether to revoke the Coronado Branch's historic designation. The mayors of Coronado and Imperial Beach wrote letters to the council supporting Cox's position, too. Complicating matters, however, Fish and Wildlife's Stewart agreed to meet with Ed Kravitz and others on February 24 to discuss the environmental impact of trains running through the wildlife refuge. Several of those in attendance at that meeting, Kravitz among them, swear that Stewart told them he believed trains would cause the refuge less harm than bikers and walkers. The wildlife refuge is home to several endangered bird species, including the least tern and piping plover. It also supports many other shorebirds and migrating birds on the global north-south Pacific flyway.
Stewart tells me he does not remember saying it would be better to have either trains or bike riders and walkers in the South San Diego Bay Wildlife Reserve. "I doubt I would have said anything like that," he recalls. "I try to stay neutral between the advocates of each." But Stewart does oppose their dual activity in the reserve, which is what his letter to Cox said in the first place. Mitchell Beauchamp, former National City councilman and president of Pacific Southwest Biological Services, attended the February 24 meeting and feels sure that Stewart fretted more about walkers than trains. People will leave the path or let their dogs loose, thereby frightening the birds, according to Beauchamp. He tells me a story about Alpine resident Tom Banks, who carried a card saying "Have Mule, Will Travel." "Banks used to ride his mule in the backcountry of East County, and the animals would see his four-legged creature and think nothing of it. But humans on foot scare them away," says Beauchamp.
Kravitz and Bob Recks expressed a more visceral reaction to the letter Cox would end up using before the San Diego City Council. Recks describes himself as "only a peon who is a member of Pacific Southwest Railroad Museum [in La Mesa]." In a recent e-mail to Stewart, he wrote, "What we understood you to say February 24 [was] that the bike path is the greatest threat. Trains need that track, a bike needs a street, and you don't need Cox telling you otherwise." Kravitz sent Stewart his own e-mail, saying, "I know that you were pressured to submit that letter, and I'm pretty sure somebody else wrote the original draft.... Greg Cox does not sign your paycheck," wrote Kravitz.
One person who was at the February 24 meeting with Stewart but does not remember him taking sides is Lew Wolfgang, vice president of the Pacific Southwest Railroad Museum and chair of its Coronado Branch committee. He acknowledges that Ed Kravitz may not have the most winning of ways, often sending confusing e-mails to anyone he thinks will help the railroad preservation cause. "He goes off on tangents, and he doesn't have good follow-through with paperwork, things like business plans," according to Wolfgang. "But Ed's heart is in the right place, and he has lots of good ideas." Wolfgang and Kravitz agree that a revival of old trains on the Coronado Branch line would increase San Diego's historical tourism, an industry that brings millions of dollars into communities all over the country. "Our museum would have passenger rights on the Coronado Branch. As landlord, the transit district would contract out the service to us the same way it contracts out to the trolley for its service," says Wolfgang.
Mitchell Beauchamp would like to see the Coronado Branch used for freight transport as well. Currently he is working with Union Pacific to move freight in and out of the South Bay on the Carrizo Gorge Railway from Plaster City in Imperial Valley. It doesn't make sense, he thinks, for San Diego to destroy the possibility of also shipping freight north and south on the Coronado Branch. All that railroad preservationists want is to share the Coronado Branch right-of-way. "This is an easy thing to solve," says Bruce Coons, director of Save Our Heritage Organisation. Along the railroad right-of-way, the berm that grounds the tracks would have to be widened to accommodate both trains and bicycles. New pilings supporting the old railroad's trestles would need to be sunk. Coons says donations have already put him in possession of the materials to fix the trestles. The only lasting environmental impact Mendel Stewart says would result from widening the berm is that it would create more shadows in the wildlife reserve. And Coons doesn't think that amounts to much of an impact.
"The bike trail is important, but it doesn't have to be one or the other," says Coons, who cannot understand why Supervisor Cox is being so stubborn about the issue. He also thinks that sooner or later Cox will have to quit avoiding the law. The California Environmental Quality Act requires that any discretionary public project, such as the Bayshore Bike Trail, must give an environmental impact report to show that it does not harm historic, commercial, or scenic resources. Cox has said he doesn't believe the Coronado Branch is historic. But Coons is sure he will eventually prevail in demonstrating that the railroad is a historic resource.
Coons notes, too, that the Pacific Railroad Act, signed in the 1860s by Abe Lincoln, would protect the right of railroad activity on the Coronado Branch from the restrictions of any environmental laws, which were passed later. If push came to shove, rights to operate on the rail's right-of-way could be "grandfathered" into the older railroad act, according to Coons. The San Diego City Council's decision to overturn the Coronado Branch's historic status was a "handshake between cities," according to Coons. "But the battle is about to move from the political to the legal arena," he says. I ask Coons if he can envision a time when trains will ever again run the entire length of the Coronado Branch. Thinking about the political opposition to the railroad so far, he says, "Probably not in our lifetime. Still, one can imagine a trolley sometime in the future that runs from downtown San Diego all the way to Coronado. It's important to keep our transportation options open," says Coons. "In Los Angeles they let developers get rid of a bunch of tracks, and now the city is paying the price."