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Santa Rosa likely to get $8.2 million grant for Jennings Avenue railroad crossing

Santa Rosa is in line to receive an ?$8.2 million grant for the construction of a bicycle and pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks just south of Coddingtown Mall, potentially defusing a political battle over the need to close a rail crossing in Railroad Square.

The city applied for a federal transportation grant earlier this year and learned recently that staff of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission were recommending the Jennings Avenue project as part of $30 million in 2014 funding for regional transportation projects.

Three groups still need to sign off on the award: an MTC allocation committee on Sept. 10, the full MTC board on Sept. 24, and a state California Transportation Commission meeting on Nov. 12. But it’s “fairly likely” the grant will ultimately be approved, said MTC senior planner Doug Johnson.

If approved, the award will be the single largest grant ever received by the city’s transportation and public works department, said department director Rick Moshier.

“We’re proud of it, and we think it speaks well for the future of other similar projects,” Moshier said.

The application was well received by MTC staff because it served several goals of the regional transportation agency, said Nancy Adams, who co-authored the application for the city.

These include supporting the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit service, encouraging bicycle and pedestrian connections, creating safe routes to schools, serving underprivileged communities, and funding developments in Priority Development Areas around transportation corridors.

“It just speaks to the philosophy of how MTC distributes the money,” Adams said.

The grant also promises to help solve a sticky political problem for city leaders.

Dozens of people, including schoolchildren and bicyclists, have gotten into the habit of crossing the tracks daily at Jennings Avenue, which is bisected by the rail line.

The impending arrival of SMART rail service was forcing the city to either create an official crossing for residents or have SMART just fence it off.

Lacking the money to build a bridge over the tracks, the city was exploring a less-expensive at-grade crossing at Jennings. But since that would be considered a new rail crossing, the powerful California Public Utilities Commission signaled it would require the city to close at least one rail crossing in Railroad Square before it granted a new one at Jennings.

“That one looked like it was going to pit two neighborhoods, or interest groups, against one another,” Moshier said. “That was going to be difficult.”

The owners of Western Farm Center in Railroad Square were particularly concerned because the long time business was faced with the closure of one of the two streets, Seventh or Eighth, that most customers use to access the store.

The funding allows city leaders to side-step that fight and build the bridge they couldn’t afford to on their own. Funding is expected to cover 90 percent of the bridge’s $9 million total construction cost.

If SMART had just put up a fence, it would have been a “disaster waiting to happen,” said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.

Children in apartments on the east side of Jennings would have found ways to cut the fence and scamper across the tracks to get to Helen M. Lehman Elementary School on the west side of the rail line, he said. That could have put the children at risk and created delays for SMART, Helfrich said. Parents probably would have resorted to driving their children to and from school, increasing congestion in the area, he said.

“Are you going to let your third-grader walk down Guerneville Road to school? Probably not,” Helfrich said.

The bridge has yet to be designed, but a concept calls for long ramps on both sides for bicyclists and to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as stairs on each end for pedestrians. The bridge itself must clear 26 feet to allow freight service to pass beneath it, Adams said.

That could fuel some opposition from Jennings Avenue neighbors. The bridge will be visible “from some second-story windows” of homes in the area, Helfrich said.

The award bodes well for the city’s ability to someday win funding for the $20 million bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Highway 101 just east of the Jennings Avenue location, Moshier said.

That project isn’t as far along because Caltrans’ process is longer and the land-use issues are more complicated, Moshier said. That project ran into opposition from the co-owners of Coddingtown Mall, who also own the Edwards Avenue property on the west side of the highway where the bridge would have landed. A Dick’s Sporting Goods store is under construction there.

“We chose to put it in a busy part of town where people want to be, so it’s hard as heck to shoehorn it in there,” Moshier said.

Even so, the MTC grant gives Moshier hope that funding will one day materialize for that project, too, creating links for both pedestrians and bicyclists across the highway and rail lines, he said.

“We’re going to make it work,” he said.

You can reach Staff ?Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.?mccallum@press?democrat.com. On ?Twitter @srcitybeat.

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