A Gritty Dilemma

Around 9:30 p.m., on Friday the 19th of August, 22-year-old David Silverman of Jacumba and two female friends were cruising south on Buckman Springs Road toward Campo when they found themselves stuck behind an 18-wheel truck. Silverman grew impatient with the slow-moving truck and attempted to pass it, crossing the double yellow line on a curve. His Ford Escort immediately ran head-on into a Ford Ranger pickup driven by 20-year-old Campo resident David Craig. Silverman and his passengers were killed. Craig was badly injured.

The 18-wheeler was on its way to pick up a load of sand at the rail depot on state Route 94, a couple of miles east of the intersection of Buckman Springs Road and 94. Though the truck was involved only indirectly in the collision, the incident brought to a head the growing frustration among Campo and Lake Morena residents with the increasing presence of sand trucks on Buckman Springs Road.

Crossing ten miles of oak-studded country between Route 94 and Interstate 8, the two-lane, shoulderless road is the most direct route to the interstate for Campo and Lake Morena drivers. The nearest alternative, La Posta Road to the east, is longer, curvier, and narrower. The relative convenience of Buckman Springs is the reason trucks selected it to haul sand from the train depot to I-8, which is a safer route west than 94.

The trucks began to appear in the area about four years ago. The sand they hauled was mined in Mexico, near Tecate, and carried to the Campo depot on the transcontinental railroad that ends in San Diego. Built early in the 20th Century, the railroad bypasses San Diego's mountainous backcountry by running south from San Ysidro into Mexico. Near Campo, the tracks cross the border into the United States, run east to Jacumba, then pass north through the Carrizo Gorge. Although the Mexican government stopped its sand operation more than two years ago, the sand from Mexico was quickly replaced by sand from this side of the border.

"What occurred," says Byron Wear, former San Diego city councilman, now public relations representative for the Carrizo Gorge Railroad, "is Carrizo Gorge struck an operating agreement to operate the railroad, and they needed to go in and open up all the tunnels and repair all of the track." The section of the railroad that runs through East County was abandoned in 1983 after fires damaged two bridges and a tunnel collapsed.

"So using six million private investment dollars, we have reopened the railroad. One of our concerns in reopening the track was there were two places where sand in the public right-of-way was a major impediment to the railroad. One was an area known as Silica, and it is basically a huge sand dune where, when the wind blows, the sand would cover the track. So what we did is, we cleared out the sand on both sides of the track at that particular location. However, you can't stop a sand dune, so we still have an ongoing maintenance problem, and so we've got to dispose of that sand. The other issue is down in a place where about 20 years ago a rainstorm actually washed out about 1500 feet of track. We are pulling out the sand and creating a proper drainage there. We sell the sand on the sand market, and those dollars by law must go back into restoring the railroad."

Wear says the operation clearing sand from the tracks is "winding down," but that doesn't mean that sand trucks will stop traveling on Buckman Springs Road. That's because "there is also a third sand operation down in Imperial County, in an area called Imperial Lakes, about two miles east of Plaster City. There is a large sandpit out there, and we are beginning to haul material out of that particular location up the railroad, and we sell that on the sand market as well."

As it stands now, the sand that's hauled by rail to Campo is dumped at the depot and trucked some 50 miles west for use in making concrete. Asked why it isn't hauled all the way to San Diego on the newly reopened railroad, Wear answers, "Well, to begin with, there is a large freight yard there at Campo, and there is space to unload it. We are working on sand going all the way to San Diego -- because we do operate the railroad in Mexico -- but the problem is, as we get across the border from San Ysidro north to downtown, that railroad is operated by RailAmerica, and [we] have to add that rate structure to the cost of the haulage. Plus the trolley operates on the same track. So the only time that the freight can move on that line is between about 2:30 in the morning and 5:30. If you have been in the Gaslamp Quarter and downtown late at night and heard the trains, that is why they are operating in the middle of the night, it is because the trolleys are operating on the same track. So until such time that we get a third rail from San Ysidro up to the port, we are always going to have this conflict with the trolley."

Even if a third track were built from San Ysidro to the Port of San Diego, finding enough bayfront land to use as a sand depot would be difficult. "Land along the railroad in Chula Vista and National City is too expensive," Wear says.

That all adds up to more trucks rumbling through Campo and up Buckman Springs Road to Interstate 8. Bob Shea, who lives on Buckman Springs, says the neighborhood feeling toward the trucks is "negative, definitely negative. From the spot where they pick up the sand up to about Oak Street, they're driving through five miles of prime residential area. And people are getting more and more tired of the trucks. I sat and watched them recently and counted one every five minutes.... And it's not just the sand trucks. NAFTA trucks coming up from Tecate have discovered that taking Buckman up to 8 is a safer route than driving 94 into town."

"We're getting really concerned," says Bev Esry, the chair of the Campo-Lake Morena Community Planning Group. "It's just a two-lane highway. We've got all those trucks mixing with all of the school buses in the morning and afternoon, because both schools [Campo Elementary and Mountain Empire High School] are right on Buckman. It is getting to be a serious traffic problem. A lot of people are getting worried because we've had a lot of close calls, and again it is not necessarily the sand trucks' fault. But there are a lot of them on there, and people get impatient and try to pass. And as the building continues out here and we get more and more people, it is only going to get worse."

Will the situation change? Not anytime soon, says Wear. The trucks can't be legislated off of Buckman Springs Road because federal railroad law stipulates that local and state governments cannot restrict the transportation of goods to and from railroads. As for finding another spot to dump the sand, both sides agree that Jacumba, 25 miles to the east, is a strong candidate. "It's right on Interstate 8," Shea says, "so it would be convenient for the trucks to pick up the sand and get right back on the highway. And Jacumba wants it."

Wear agrees. "It would really be nice if we could have some kind of facility in Jacumba where some of that product could go directly onto Interstate 8, but that is going to take us some time. We don't own the land, but the owners are interested in developing it. And if we were going to do something in Jacumba, we would make it a broad facility that would involve maybe sand and other products besides sand. But there are also some environmentally sensitive areas in Jacumba. We would have to go through all those issues, and by the time we go through all those issues and the planning process and filing the right maps and dealing with the landowners, it would take a lot of time."

Until then, Buckman Springs Road will bear the burden. Wear says he understands that nerves are frayed, and he pledges railroad support to mitigate the impact. In response to the community, he says, "We don't run the trucks from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. And we are looking at putting in some turnouts on Buckman Springs so the trucks can pull over and let people pass. And we also want to make sure that there are flashing lights at the schools. Our position is that even though it is not a requirement of any federal or state agency, we are going to be a good neighbor."

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