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Santa Rosa's gamble on Coddingtown rail crossing pays off

Santa Rosa won approval from state regulators Thursday to build a crossing for pedestrians and bicyclists at the SMART rail line near Coddingtown Mall.

The decision by the powerful Public Utilities Commission caps a four-year effort by the city and rail supporters to preserve the informal crossing at Jennings Avenue.

It also represents a successful gamble by the city, which last year passed on an $8.2 million grant to build a bridge over the rail line. The city instead asked the PUC to overrule its own regulatory staff and grant the city an exemption.

“It’s a good day,” said Councilman Gary Wysocky. “It shows that government will listen to the community. Common sense prevailed.”

For decades Jennings Avenue crossed the rail line until it was closed by the county in the 1960s because of its proximity to the larger Guerneville Road, which crosses the rail line just a third of a mile to the north.

People nevertheless continued to use Jennings as an informal crossing location over what was for years a lightly used freight line. In particular, dozens of Helen M. Lehman Elementary students used it to get from their homes on the east side of the tracks to school on the west. Fast-forward to the era of commuter rail. With the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District planning to run 30 train trips per day later this year, SMART and the city could no longer allow people to trespass across the rail line.

But the city also didn’t want to eliminate the only place for pedestrians and bicyclists to cross the tracks in the nearly milelong stretch between College Avenue and Guerneville Road.

When city staff first inquired, they were told the city had three options, none of them good.

It could allow SMART to fence off the crossing, forcing people to find an alternate route. It could build a bridge over or tunnel under the rail line, both of which would have been expensive.

Or it could get permission to formalize the Jennings crossing with crossing gates and lights, but only if it closed at least one other rail crossing in the city, such as one of the three streets that cross the rail line near Railroad Square.

That last option ran into fierce opposition from Western Farm Center, a longtime business whose customers mostly reach the feed store by crossing the tracks at Seventh or Eighth streets.

That put the City Council in the unenviable position of potentially having to choose between the livelihoods of businesses in Railroad Square and the safety of residents of the Coddingtown area.

Wysocky rejected that as a false choice and, though some of his colleagues thought it futile, he and others pushed for the city to go over the heads of the PUC staff and get a ruling from the full commission.

The process, which took more than a year, was effectively a slow-motion trial, requiring the city to hire an outside law firm to press its appeal. An administrative law judge heard public and expert testimony both in Santa Rosa and in a two-day hearing in San Francisco.

The judge ultimately overruled the concerns of PUC staff. She found that while “as a matter of policy, the Commission disfavors new at-grade crossings” this one was in the public interest. She also found a bridge or a tunnel were impractical and the city had “eliminated all potential safety hazards,” according to the ruling, which was adopted Thursday morning by the commission. The ruling confirms the city will not have to close one of the crossings in Railroad Square to offset the Jennings crossing.

“It shows that government will listen to the community,” Wysocky said. The $8.2 million grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission the city turned back would be better spent on a bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Highway 101, he said.

City staff has estimated the cost of the at-grade crossing at $1.6 million. The crossing has been fenced off since late last year.

James Duncan, a retired bicycle shop owner who lives near Jennings Avenue and has been an active supporter of preserving the crossing, said the city did a good job of pressing its case. But he said credit also should go to Steve Birdlebough, a retired attorney and transportation activist who rallied public support for the crossing.

“Steve really worked tirelessly to present the case for the crossing,” Duncan said. “He put a human face on it.”

While the city hired a legal expert from San Francisco, Birdlebough focused on ensuring the judge, who came to Santa Rosa to gauge public support for the project in February, heard how people’s lives would be affected.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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