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State PUC orders Santa Rosa, SMART to block risky rail crossings at Jennings Avenue

State rail officials have ordered Santa Rosa and the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency to take steps to prevent people from crossing the tracks just south of Coddingtown Mall, a popular but unauthorized access route and potentially dangerous point of conflict between trains and schoolchildren.

The city is hoping to convince the state Public Utilities Commission to allow it to build a formal crossing, complete with flashing lights and crossing gates, at that location before rail service begins in late 2016.

But while that's being hammered out, rail safety officials are worried that the increasing number of SMART's trains moving through the area — where about 170 kids cross per day — creates an unacceptable safety risk.

'We believe that the safety at this location needs to be addressed immediately,' Paul King, the PUC's deputy director of rail safety, wrote in his Nov. 4 letter to the city and SMART.

SMART's maintenance yard is at Airport Boulevard north of Santa Rosa, but its track and car testing is currently occurring south of Santa Rosa, meaning the cars are passing through the Jennings Avenue area regularly, said Matt Stephens, SMART's director of public outreach.

'We are going to be only seeing increased train activities from here on out,' he said.

That activity will increase with the arrival of new trains at the beginning of next year and in the summer, as the railway begins simulating the 30 trips per day it expects to run when service begins by the end of 2016, he said.

So SMART will be installing a fence at least 6 feet tall between College Avenue and Guerneville Road in the coming weeks, blocking the popular crossing.

That will force residents of the neighborhood east of the tracks, including students at Helen M. Lehman Elementary School, to walk or ride about a quarter-mile north along a dirt access road to Guerneville Road, cross the tracks and walk a quarter-mile back down North Dutton Avenue.

'This is going to be a big change for a lot of people,' said Jason Nutt, the city's director of transportation and public works.

The city, which first raised the crossing issue about four years ago, has been worried that fencing off the crossing will do three things: Put more children in danger along the heavily trafficked Guerneville Road; put more cars on the road as parents decide to drive kids to school; and prompt people to cut the fence and cross anyway.

To ensure the detour is as safe as possible, the city will install signs directing schoolchildren and others to the crossing at Guerneville Road. The city also is reaching out to residents in the area to educate them about the changes. It has created a map of the detour and plans to distribute it to residents.

There also is a plan to have city staff on site when the crossing first closes, currently slated for Nov. 30.

To prevent vandalism to the fence, SMART is exploring a type of high-strength fence that is difficult to climb or cut, Nutt said.

The city's hope is that the fence will be temporary. It has asked the state PUC for permission to build an at-grade crossing at Jennings Avenue without being required to close another crossing in the city to offset the new one.

That request has been met with skepticism by PUC rail safety staff, who argue that it is safer to have fewer at-grade rail crossings because it limits potential collisions between trains and cars, bicycles and pedestrians.

As such it has a policy of only approving a new crossing if at least one existing one is removed.

But the city has pushed back against that requirement, noting the new crossing is for pedestrians and bicyclists only, not cars. It also points out that the Railroad Square neighborhood objects to the closure of one of their three road crossings. In addition, tunneling under the tracks was explored but rejected as infeasible, and the City Council nixed the idea of building a bridge over the rails, despite receiving an $8 million grant to fund it, in part because residents of the area called it a 'monstrosity.'

The city recently completed two days of mediation on the issue of the crossing, which did not resolve the dispute between the city and PUC staff, City Attorney Caroline Fowler said.

That means the city will press forward with its application, with an administrative law judge likely to preside over a public hearing on the issue in the spring.

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

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