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Controversial Santa Rosa pedestrian crossing may get extension after years in limbo

State regulators may issue another extension for a long-stalled project that would allow pedestrians to cross train tracks, as Santa Rosa and Sonoma-Marin Rail Transit officials engage in a yearslong dispute over its level of safety.

A California Public Utilities Commission law judge has recommended the agency’s board members approve Santa Rosa’s request for a two-year extension for the pedestrian crossing across SMART tracks on Jennings Avenue.

Board members may consider the matter as early as Oct. 7.

"In my opinion, this is the biggest hurdle,“ Santa Rosa Assistant City Manager Jason Nutt said of completing the project.

A previous extension approved in 2019 will expire Sept. 20 and a CPUC rejection would essentially end a project that the city has pursued for about five years.

“This project ceases to be active and we would look to alternative pathways,” Nutt said.

The unfinished project was proposed about five years ago and has been a source of contention that’s resulted in a stalemate between the city and SMART officials.

The tracks, which existed since the late 1800s, run north and south and split Jennings in half. Jennings runs east and west in a residential area west of Highway 101, and people once used a foot path to cross the rails and get from one side of the street to the other.

SMART fenced off the area in 2015 as a safety precaution ahead of its 2017 launch of passenger service.

Now, from either side of Jennings, pedestrians have to walk a path that’s parallel to the tracks and takes them north to Guerneville Road. At Guerneville, they can cross the tracks at a controlled intersection and return south to the other side of Jennings.

The city has installed signs advising people the trek is about a half-mile long and takes 15 to 20 minutes.

Santa Rosa resident Roger Guerrero, 22, completed the walk Friday afternoon on his way to a friend’s place near the eastern half of Jennings and he said he was unaware of why signs had been installed. After being advised that a shorter path across Jennings once existed, he said “huh?”

“Would’ve been nice to have a shorter walk,” he said. “Why can’t it be that way now?”

In 2016, the utilities commission authorized Santa Rose to develop a pedestrian and bicycle path across the tracks, but the authorization would expire in three years unless an extension was granted.

The city and SMART initially agreed to build a pedestrian crossing until SMART officials abruptly reversed their position in 2018. The rail agency has since maintained a pedestrian crossing created a safety hazard.

“From SMART’s perspective, it’s always going to be about safety,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who’s chairman of SMART’s board of directors.

Little has been publicly discussed on the matter in recent months, but Rabbitt said talks with Santa Rosa aren’t out of the question.

“It’s a project they want to push. They need to find a path forward,” he said.

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers, who also sits on SMART’s board of directors, said SMART’s position has been based on internal findings. The utilities commission declared the project safe, but the public hasn’t been made fully aware of that since it’s never brought up during SMART meetings.

“I’m going to keep asking the chair to put it up for discussion,” Rogers said, adding that SMART officials need to acknowledge the utility commission’s findings.

Nutt said the city has previously offered to fund the project as long as SMART handled construction. A ground-level path would have cost just under $2 million when the project was first proposed, but the amount may have gone up since then, he said.

If an official path is built, it will include multiple safety measures to prevent anyone from being injured, he said.

“We really did over-design this,” Nutt said.

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at colin.atagi@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @colin_atagi

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