Santa Rosa to continue seeking Jennings Avenue path across SMART tracks

Over the protests of the North Bay’s commuter and freight rail operators, Santa Rosa has earned initial state approval to extend the window it has to build a long-disputed pathway across the train tracks in the northwest section of the city.

A legal arbiter for the state agency that oversees rail safety and all crossings this week issued a decision granting Santa Rosa a two-year extension to reestablish a ground-?level footpath at Jennings Avenue. The east-west crossing, which dates to at least the early ?20th century, was fenced off by Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit in 2015, setting off what has become years of failed negotiations between the city and rail agency to reopen the crossing.

The decision, which was overseen by one member of the state’s Public Utilities Commission and reauthorizes a ruling issued in September 2016, still requires support from a majority of the five-member body of regulators for formal adoption. The item could come before the state commission for a vote as soon as Oct. 10.

After supporting an over-crossing and then briefly a ground-level design at the location during the run-up to the train’s launch, SMART officials changed their tune in the summer of 2017 and have repeatedly said they no longer believe the proposed path over the tracks is safe. Since passenger service began in August 2017, nine people have died after being hit by trains - five during a 19-day span earlier this year. Six of the deaths since service began have been ruled suicides.

“Our trains travel fast. They’re quiet, and ... we’ve seen several incidents in a short period of time that have heightened our concern,” said Bill Gamlen, SMART’s chief engineer.

Months of negotiations between the city and SMART, which have included state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian and engineering staff from both sides, have gone nowhere and led to more finger-pointing.

“It’s been long and frustrating,” said Zane, a 10-year SMART board member whose supervisory district includes the potential crossing site. “We keep going back and forth, back and forth. It needs to get resolved.”

On top of the cost to build the crossing, the city says it has offered to pay to add a number of improvements to meet SMART’s heightened threshold for safety at the location, about a half-mile west of an elementary school. Those include swing gates for entry and exit, gate arms that also limit a person’s ability to crawl underneath and a site-focused horn, among other enhancements. The city also is prepared to handle maintenance duties of the crossing, which could indemnify SMART of any legal responsibility at the site, Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Chris Rogers said.

The two sides haven’t come to terms.

“We threw every bell and whistle at it to see whether SMART would approve the crossing, and what we get from SMART is that they’re not supportive of any new at-grade crossings,” said Rogers, who is a recent addition to the SMART board. “The frustrating part is that we keep asking that if it’s not safe, what additional safety mechanisms would help here, and they tell us that it’s not their job to design the crossing.”

Also, SMART seeks the indemnification agreement for the city’s entire line, as it already has in place with Sonoma County for unincorporated areas, as well as in San Rafael and Novato. Mansourian has consistently stated publicly that such an agreement and the Jennings Avenue crossing are not connected, despite the rail agency’s chief engineer, Bill Gamlen, saying in an October interview that the two were linked if SMART were ever to agree to help construct the ground-level crossing.

Gamlen said he was unaware of the status of that agreement in Santa Rosa, but reaffirmed Friday that SMART would require construction of the crossing to be tied to such a pact. But SMART’s position remains that the safest crossing is no crossing at all.

“Our core position on this is ‘we’re not willing to give you your crossing,’?” Gamlen said. “So if there’s no crossing, then it’s not linked.”

Northwestern Pacific Railroad Co., the exclusive freight hauler on the line, also filed a petition this spring opposing the city’s extension request, arguing that a ground-level crossing there is unnecessarily dangerous. Northwestern Pacific Railroad Co. is co-owned by Doug Bosco, a former North Coast congressman who is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

Bosco said the speed of trains on the track has increased immensely, and the number of people crossing would be much higher than in the past, making the closed crossing and 1.5-mile detour for pedestrians necessary.

“We’re disappointed in the PUC’s decision,” Bosco said. “We’re fearful that at some time in the future, it could result in very serious injuries or even death.”

SMART’s board of directors has yet to place the item on a meeting agenda so the public may weigh in. Instead, the 12-member board has deferred to staff recommendations that it would be unsafe.

But SMART Board Chairman Gary Phillips, who has been in the role since January, said if the state commission grants the extension to the city next month, he will ask that the Jennings Avenue crossing be placed on an upcoming agenda for a vote.

Rogers said he would recuse himself as a SMART board member if the Jennings Avenue crossing is placed on the agenda. He would, however, testify as vice mayor of Santa Rosa, he said, representing the unanimous backing of the City Council to seek the crossing on behalf of the northwestern neighborhood, and as part of the city’s long-term vision for bicycle and pedestrian connectivity.

Chris Coursey, Santa Rosa’s former mayor and a candidate for county supervisor, has Rogers’ back. He lamented that the cost of the crossing has risen, from $1.83 million to what is estimated could reach $3.5 million, or more, with SMART operations having now begun.

“It should have happened a long time ago,” said Coursey, who is a former spokesman for SMART. “This is not an impossible thing to do. It is the right thing to do; it’s what the community wants, what SMART said they supported only two to ?three years ago, and I just urge them to get it done.”

Zane, the three-term incumbent who is Coursey’s opponent in the supervisor race, said she remained hopeful the two sides could reach an agreement on the necessary safety enhancements.

“I think it’s going to take two years, unfortunately, to work out the terms,” she said. “But I do support the crossing, and I always have. I would like to see the city and SMART come to the board with a presentation in terms of what makes it safe and acceptable for SMART.”

Staff Writer Tyler Silvy contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or On Twitter @kfixler.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of SMART’s chief engineer. It’s Bill Gamlen.

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