SMART, Santa Rosa at loggerheads over Jennings Avenue pedestrian and bicycling crossing

The North Bay's year-old commuter rail line and the region's largest city are embroiled in an increasingly entrenched public standoff over whether to construct a long-planned footpath across the tracks in northwest Santa Rosa — a crossing sought by the adjacent neighborhoods, bicyclists and some of the train system's most vocal advocates.

Santa Rosa favors the pedestrian and bicycle crossing at Jennings Avenue, a project first outlined almost a decade ago and endorsed once again by the City Council this week. The crossing is meant to restore an east-west footpath that dates back to at least the early 20th century, according to the city, and until it was fenced off by SMART in 2015 remained a key community connector.

But the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system, which previously backed the ground-level crossing and twice offered letters of support for grant funding to build it, abandoned the concept about a year ago and has sidestepped any scheduled public discussion of the disputed pathway.

SMART officials say the at-grade crossing would endanger path users, including schoolchildren. The proposed crossing, about 1 mile north of the downtown Railroad Square station, would traverse tracks where oncoming trains usually travel at 35 mph, according to SMART.

But public comments from Santa Rosa council members over the stalled project reflected the city's growing sense of frustration. Some were confused by the impasse. Others were incensed. The path is meant to serve an area of the city that otherwise lacks suitable pedestrian access across the tracks.

'I think it's ridiculous that we're having a conversation about the safety of this crossing at this point,' said Mayor Chris Coursey, a former SMART spokesman. 'If this crossing as designed isn't safe, then there isn't a safe crossing on SMART's line. It's a railroad that needs to be integrated with these communities. Crossings are part of the design. This crossing needs to be part of the design.'

SMART officials, however, say public safety concerns now make the long-envisioned project unworkable. Since the taxpayer-supported train system launched in August 2017, two people have been killed by SMART trains in deaths that authorities ruled suicides, while a third fatality on the tracks in Rohnert Park was determined to be an accident.

Additional ground-level crossings in populated areas heighten safety risks, SMART officials contend.

'We've reconsidered,' said Bill Gamlen, SMART's chief engineer. 'Just because we maybe thought something worked in the past and we know more now doesn't mean we should fall back to our old position. We're comparing convenience against safety, and I don't think you can put a price on safety.'

The dispute has escalated in the public arena in recent weeks. Officials on both sides have traded emails and letters reasserting their positions; Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Chris Rogers confronted Deb Fudge, the chairwoman of SMART, last week at a board meeting; and most recently, at the City Council meeting on Tuesday, a unanimous council endorsement to move forward with a number of steps to advance the project without SMART.

'We need to find a way to get this done in spite of some folks that may be throwing up some barriers for us,' said Councilman Tom Schwedhelm. 'Let's just get it done in the most efficient way possible.'

When the de facto crossing at Jennings Avenue was fenced off by SMART three years ago, detours were established a half-mile to the south, at West College Avenue and less than a quarter-mile to the north, at Guerneville Road. For some residents near the tracks those options have proved to be a major inconvenience.

Jon Petersen and his wife, Michelle, who each have health issues that prevent them from driving, have lived in the Arroyo Point Apartments on Jennings Avenue for five years and care for their two children, who are both autistic. Since closure of the pathway, they must now fork over the money for a car service to get their kids to several medical appointments on the west side of the tracks. On foot, the detours take roughly 30 minutes round trip and traverse areas that present other potential hazards.

'If it's early in the morning or late in the night, it's not safe,' Petersen said of the Guerneville Road route. Jon Peterson cited gang and homeless activity on the alternative route as chief concerns. 'There's no busing, so we take Uber, and that's our only choice, or being scared walking up that path.'

He's among those rankled by the lack of progress on the Jennings crossing. Other supporters include bicycle commuters and members of the Friends of SMART, the rail system's most active group of advocates.

For a time, Santa Rosa considered a large-scale overcrossing at the Jennings location, but subsequently decided against it. In backpedaling, the city made the rare decision to return an $8 million Bay Area transit grant for the overcrossing.

The dispute over the ground-level crossing has grown over the past several years. Part of SMART's stance relies on an argument made three years ago by the safety division for the state commission that oversees rail crossings on at-grade pedestrian path. A legal arbiter who handled the safety division's protest overruled the argument in July 2016, stating that Santa Rosa was convincing in how it would reduce hazards through heightened safety improvements, including pedestrian gates and flashing lights at Jennings. The state commission unanimously granted the city's application for the crossing.

SMART and the city worked on a construction agreement, signed by Santa Rosa in June 2017 and delivered to the rail agency's board of directors for review and ratification. Since then, the project has sat in limbo, with no formal discussion scheduled before the SMART board.

Fudge, the SMART board chairwoman, said Thursday that she has never put the project up for a vote because of safety concerns raised by SMART staff and state officials.

But members of the public have repeatedly shown up at SMART board meetings to protest the continued postponement of the pathway. Just last month, board members sat through more than an hour of comments on the issue after a brief report on the crossing by Farhad Mansourian, SMART's general manager, as part of his general operations update.

'If you filter out all of the 'he said, she said' part of it, it is nothing but a safety issue for us,' Mansourian said at the Sept. 19 meeting. 'There is nothing about cost, there is nothing about politics, there is nothing about liability. This is pure safety. We know better now, a year later.'

SMART's about-face on the project has more than doubled its estimated cost, from $1.83 million to more than $4 million, according to Santa Rosa officials. The sharp rise is due in part to the additional expense of building an at-grade crossing on a rail line that's now in daily operation.

City officials contend SMART is seeking to strong-arm Santa Rosa into signing an agreement that would release the rail agency from maintenance and liability issues connected to the site and its related quiet zone — an area where engines have limited use of horns.

Gamlen, SMART's chief engineer, did not deny the link between SMART's need for an indemnity agreement and the city's desire to build the crossing at Jennings Avenue. San Rafael and Novato have already signed such documents, he said, and one is pending with Sonoma County for unincorporated areas.

'They want it to be a quiet zone, right?' said Gamlen. 'So why isn't it connected, why isn't it related? We went out and built all of these quiet-zone improvements for people on good faith and now we've asked them to execute a maintenance agreement and people, in some cases, haven't been willing to do so. Big picture, it seems like a reasonable request.'

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose district includes central Santa Rosa and who has served on the SMART board for nine years, took up an invitation from Jennings Avenue-area residents and walked the detour route. Two days later she wrote a letter to her fellow SMART board members calling the experience 'enlightening' and urged the two sides to find a compromise.

'To have a nice, safe walk, there's a social justice issue there, too,' Zane said in an interview, noting she has invited Mansourian to walk the detour himself. 'If you look at the areas of highest concentration of young Latinos … a lot of people live over there who are not seen easily, so you could argue it's also an issue of equity. The discussion just really hasn't happened with Jennings. That's what I'm asking for. Let's have that discussion, see what the city says and move forward.'

Rogers, the Santa Rosa vice mayor, provided perhaps the most striking instance of recent lobbying, when he rose from the audience last week at the SMART board meeting and during public comment directly called on Fudge to put the Jennings Avenue item on the board's agenda for a vote.

'Kids are being impacted, families are being impacted,' Rogers said this week at the City Council, urging Santa Rosa to move forward with or without SMART. 'I don't know how we can be any more clear: We want this crossing. Any representation that we have been unclear on that is complete fiction. Let's get this done.'

Editor's note: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect date for the Sept. 19 SMART meeting. The date has been updated.

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