- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- END OF THE FENCE: Where the city fence stops, an old chain link fence starts near the corner of California Boulevard and Taft streets in San Luis Obispo. Here, it struggles to stand up to the progress of people illegally crossing the tracks.
Whoever claimed that there are no shortcuts in life never lived on Murray Street.
The ongoing tug-of-war between Cal Poly students and the city of San Luis Obispo has a new focal point, this time at a short stretch of fencing along the railroad tracks near Cal Poly. Fencing installed in recent years on both sides of the tracks is intended to hinder foot traffic on a popular shortcut between the densely populated, predominantly student neighborhood on the west side of the tracks (along Murray and Hathaway) and the east side (along California and Taft).
The track-crossing route has been a popular one for students on their way to school, or to the 7-11, or to the shopping center across the street. Obstructions raised have sparked renewed opposition from the technical trespassers determined to get a burrito, 18-pack, or rolling papers via the most direct path. Pedestrians eager to get from Point A to Point B regardless of any barriers have taken to cutting holes and removing panels. Workers then repair the fences, and the cycle starts again.
The situation has left residents wondering what the point is of a fence that’s proven ineffective—one that’s been called an eyesore and constant reminder of a jurisdictional gray area between the city and the Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the tracks and holds the right-of-way.
“It’s an ongoing project,” Les Beck, a nearby property owner, told New Times. “Whoever’s doing it, it’s ongoing. It’s not serving the purpose of keeping people off the tracks.”
Beck, who owns a rental on Murray, approached City Hall and New Times with hopes of bringing enough attention to the situation to garner a permanent solution. The city has considered two options: It’s attempted to work with the railroad to improve the fencing and response time for repairs, and it’s launched a public education campaign that warns would-be crossers that the path is dangerous and involves trespassing. Neither effort seems to have gone anywhere, however, as the railroad, in this case Union Pacific, thus far has lived up to what critics see as an unresponsive and elusive juggernaut, visible only when the red and yellow engines creep through town with a whistle. Representatives from the city and Union Pacific did meet in mid-October, and one of the issues they discussed is the fencing and safety along the railroad corridor. City officials said they gained a clearer idea of who to call in the future in order to iron out problems around the tracks.
As for educating a constant stream of incoming and outgoing college students—a crowd not always concerned with obeying the establishment’s decree—the city has made little noise in an uphill battle of public outreach.
“The challenge that we have is, I feel like it’s an issue both of adequate fencing and an issue of public education. The truth is, the tracks are a dangerous place to be on, and people get killed out there,” Public Works Director Daryl Grigsby told New Times. “You can have as many fences as you want, but if people are intent on getting on the tracks, they’re going to get on there.”
The crossing was wide open for decades, and the frequent foot traffic across the tracks is just as old. While crossing the tracks anywhere is trespassing, that’s a violation people aren’t always cognizant about, especially when the tracks aren’t blocked off in any way. But even if they are, enforcement is not widespread. Union Pacific has special agents who patrol the tracks, but they have a large area to cover. City police don’t actively patrol the areas.
When the city approached Union Pacific with plans to build the now-present Railroad Safety Trail from the Cal Poly stadium south along California Boulevard, with hopes that one day the path would cross the freeway, a process of hoops and hurdles was unveiled. Eventually the city to met the necessary requirements for Union Pacific to give the go-ahead, including a mandate for the city to build a 7-foot-tall safety fence along the trail, between the path and the tracks. Thus was born the fencing that currently runs between the trail and the tracks.
While the fence served as a partial barrier to the shortcut, that wasn’t its intended purpose, leaving the crossing fairly unguarded. Then, in the summer of 2010, 17-year-old Oscar Gonzalez was struck and killed by an Amtrak train while he and two friends were walking back from Santa Rosa Park. Gonzalez was wearing headphones and couldn’t hear the oncoming train or the shouts from his friends. The tragedy put a spotlight on the situation, and in 2011, more than a year after the accident, the railroad built a towering expanded metal fence in the gap pedestrians used to cross from Murray. That fence at first connected to two wood fences on either side, but when crossers began taking boards down in order to gain access, the fence was extended.
Then the bolt cutters came out. There’s currently a 3-foot-by-3-foot-square hole that offers access—dubbed by locals as “the butt hole”—which Beck said has been there for a year and a half.
“The unsightliness of that thing is terrible. It looks like a prison wall,” Beck said. “On the city side, the black fence looks good, but if it keeps get busted down, why do it?”
The city’s black fence also sits defenseless. It’s made up of pre-constructed panels that are attached to posts with brackets and special-head screws. After a recent weekend of revelry, one panel from the fence ended up on the ground. As of press time, it was unclear whether the fence would endure the post-Halloween weekend. And even if the fence were more durable and permanent, it would still stop near the freeway, connected to a 4-foot-tall chain link fence that’s currently disassembled.
Much to the frustration of city officials, the saga will likely continue as City Hall formulates its next move. Mayor Jan Marx was in the midst of a knee replacement surgery during the reporting for this story, and was therefore unavailable for an interview. She did, however, write in an e-mail to New Times: “It is dangerous, possibly fatal, and certainly illegal for anyone to cut through fences in order to cross the railroad tracks. It is also very expensive for the city. I urge everyone to respect the fences and allow the city to spend funds on completing the bike trail into the downtown, NOT on repairing fences.”
According to Union Pacific’s Western Regional Spokesman Aaron Hunt, the railroad uses a multi-pronged approach to prevent track crossing.
“We have seen a reduction in trespassing on Union Pacific tracks over the last year, but it continues to be a challenge that we are working on,” Hunt wrote in an e-mail to New Times.
Among those living in the conflict’s epicenter, it seems that the prevailing attitude reflects another old axiom: Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Zemar Orlando, a renter on the west side of the tracks, sees no end in sight.
“It’s like war in the Middle East. It’s a never-ending battle between college kids and the city,” Orlando said. “No matter what, college kids are going to keep cutting holes in the fence, and the city is going to keep spending tax dollars fixing it.”
Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay