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Santa Rosa may give up $8 million grant for bridge crossing

Santa Rosa may pass up the $8.2 million grant it won last year to help it build a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the rail line at Jennings Avenue.

While the bridge once was seen as the best way to get people up and over the tracks just south of the future Guerneville Road rail station, city staff now think a less expensive solution might make more sense.

Instead of a bridge, the city thinks it may have found a way to get approval for a ground-level crossing without having to close an existing crossing in Railroad Square.

The state Public Utilities Commission has a policy of trying to lower the number of at-grade crossings to reduce potential points of conflict between trains and vehicles or pedestrians.

Commission staff have long told the city that if it wanted to create a new at-grade rail crossing at Jennings Avenue in preparation for the arrival of impending commuter rail service, it would have to compensate by closing another crossing somewhere else in the city.

That meant either Sixth, Seventh or Eighth streets in Railroad Square would have faced closure, potentially affecting access for the West End neighborhood and longtime businesses like Western Farm Center.

The only other options seemed to be building a bridge over the tracks, which the city couldn’t afford, or to fence it up and make people walk or bike around the areas, which no one wanted, either.

Studying the issue through the environmental review process, however, city officials now think the best solution may be to ask the PUC for a special exemption to its crossings policy.

“What we wanted to do was seriously look at whether we could get a crossing there without having to give up a crossing somewhere else,” Assistant City Manager Chuck Regalia said.

So the city hired an attorney who used to work for the PUC and he thinks the city has a good case for an exemption, which it can grant when, “in the Commission’s opinion, public interest would be served by so doing,” city planner Jessica Jones explained, citing PUC policy.

There are several reasons to think an at-grade crossing would be better than a bridge, transportation planner Nancy Adams said. The crossing would be for bicycles and pedestrians only, not cars; the track is straight, so sight-lines in the area are good; and the train speeds would be low because the Guerneville Road station is so close, she explained.

The cost of the at-grade crossing would be just over $1 million.

The bridge, however, would be a far more elaborate affair. It would cost $9.2 million, and because of handicapped access requirements, would have required 450-foot ramps with switchbacks to get people the 23 feet up they’d need to clear the trains.

The ramps also would have created a “significant unavoidable aesthetic impact” in the Jennings Avenue area, Jones said. By turning back the money from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission now, the city would ensure the funds can be reallocated to other jurisdictions in the region, she said.

Officials from Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit have no preference between the two options, just that either the bridge or the at-grade crossing is safe, Adams said.

The City Council will be asked to accept the environmental report and pursue the at-grade crossing at its Tuesday meeting.

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