The Santa Rosa City Council agreed reluctantly Tuesday to spend $200,000 to study whether a bicycle and pedestrian undercrossing can be built beneath the future rail line at Jennings Avenue.

The council unanimously agreed to explore ways to avoid the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit service fencing off the pathway that people have used to cross the tracks for years at that location.

Commute rail service is expected to begin in 2015 or 2016.

"Without this crossing, this is a barrier in the center of our city and it's a barrier that would exist for years if we don't take a look at this now," Councilman Gary Wysocky said.

But some council members were clearly chagrined to be paying to study something the city doesn't have the money to build even if it is feasible.

"Why isn't SMART paying for this?" asked Councilman Jake Ours. "They are building the train, not us."

Public Works Director Rick Moshier told the council that an underpass at that location likely would cost $1.8 million, but the city has just $600,000 to spend on it.

"I don't see a scenario where this city will be in a position to be able to pay for all of it," Moshier said.

He said the balance would have to come from other sources, such as SMART or the Sonoma County Transit Authority.

Moshier said that the city has been working for months to figure out how to preserve a crossing at Jennings, and initially didn't think it was possible. "We didn't have any clear path that I though the council would find attractive at all," Moshier said.

Digging a tunnel under the existing rail bed wouldn't work because it would make people feel uncomfortable, Moshier said.

"If the pedestrian has to go down into a dark tunnel, I have a hard time believing it's worth it," Moshier said. "I just don't think people will use it."

Increasing the height of the rail bed also didn't seem feasible because the location is only about a third of a mile from the Guerneville Road station. That would require a fairly steep incline from the station to get the train high enough to go over an at-grade tunnel, Moshier said.

But just a week and a half ago, the contractor doing the rail bed work for SMART said they thought it could be done if the train went up about eight feet and the path went down two, Moshier said.

Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, urged the council to support the study, calling the crossing as important as the proposed bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Highway 101.

"It's a way to unite your city east to west in this area," Helfrich said.

Vice Mayor John Sawyer initially opposed the allocation, but after listening to his colleagues agreed to support the study as it could not exceed $200,000.

Councilman Scott Bartley said he wanted more than the undercrossing to be studied. He wanted an overhead pathway considered, as well, noting that it could be constructed later. Wysocky also wanted to take a closer look at a ground level crossing at that location, despite warnings that the state Public Utilities Commission would require the closing of other crossings before it would approve a new one.

"To me that's unreasonable. Two for one? I mean who made them king?" Wysocky said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.