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Santa Rosa seeking Public Utilities Commission's approval for Jennings Avenue rail crossing

Santa Rosa has formally asked the state Public Utilities Commission for permission to build a $1.6 million street-level rail crossing for pedestrians and bicyclists just south of Coddingtown mall.

The city is hoping the commission will let it construct the crossing at Jennings Avenue without requiring closure of one of three streets that cross the train tracks near Railroad Square.

That's something businesses in the area like Western Farm Center have strongly opposed, believing it would make it harder for customers, delivery trucks and fire trucks to reach them.

'I hope the city is successful in keeping the streets open and creating a safe crossing up at Jennings,' said Allen Thomas, a former planning commissioner and lobbyist for Western Farm Center.

The commission has a policy of trying to reduce rail crossings whenever possible, not increase them, on the theory that fewer rail crossings make conflicts between trains and cars less likely.

But the attorney hired by the city to make its case, James Squeri, argues that closing a Railroad Square crossing such as West Sixth, Seventh or Eighth street will not make people safer.

'The commission should adhere to its policy to require closure of an existing crossing in exchange for approval of a new crossing only to the extent that application of the policy to a specific set of facts advances the interests of public safety,' he wrote.

The first 42-mile stretch of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit rail line is expected to be operational by late 2016. SMART officials have said they have no objection to the new crossing at Jennings.

Objections to the city's petition need to be made to the commission by June 17. A preliminary decision is expected by the end of the year.

The city explored other ways to get people across the tracks, including an underground tunnel, which was considered infeasible, and a $9.6 million overcrossing, for which it received an $8 million grant.

But there were significant objections to the overcrossing, with neighbors calling it a concrete 'monstrosity' and concerns about whether people would choose to cut the fence and cross at grade level anyway.

Choosing to pursue the at-grade crossing instead of the overcrossing was viewed by some as a gamble by the city, because doing so meant losing the $8 million grant. If the commission rejects the less expensive at-grade proposal, the city won't have the money to build an overcrossing instead.

Thomas thinks the city made the right call.

'At least they're going to find out from the CPUC if there is any wiggle room in this whole thing, and I hope for the city's sake there is,' he said.

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

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