PD Editorial: SMART should build Jennings Avenue rail crossing

Twin fences, each 6-feet tall, split Santa Rosa's Jennings Avenue neighborhood, forcing pedestrians to take a half-mile detour to get from one side of the SMART tracks to the other.

The chain-link fences weren't part of the plan.

The residential neighborhood, where more than 100 people a day crossed the tracks, wasn't supposed to be divided when rail service started in 2017. Funding was available for a controlled pedestrian crossing - at no cost to SMART.

But the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency has reneged on its commitment to the city of Santa Rosa - and its promise to the Jennings Avenue neighborhood - to install the crossing.

SMART's claim that the detour is safer simply isn't credible.

The crossing, with sturdy gates and flashing lights, was approved in 2016 by the California Public Utilities Commission because it offered a safer route than the detour, which requires pedestrians, including children going back and forth to school, to use Guerneville Road, a busy thoroughfare without a sidewalk. In fact, the commission made an exception to its policy of discouraging at-grade rail crossings to approve the gates at Jennings Avenue.

SMART joined the city in its applications for the crossing and construction grants, and it signed a contract with the city to install the gates. Now, SMART is refusing to even put the matter on the agenda for a board of directors meeting.

Farhad Mansourian, the rail agency's general manager, says the reversal is “pure safety,” a decision informed by three pedestrian fatalities in its first 12 months of service. “We know better now, a year later.”

It seems more likely that the hang up is Santa Rosa's refusal to release SMART from maintenance costs and liability for the crossing and its designation as a quiet zone - an area where trains limit the use of horns.

SMART, to its credit, spent extra money upfront on gates and technology required for quiet zones, anticipating that, when service started, communities along the 43-mile route would object to horns blowing at each crossing. Retrofitting for quiet zones would have driven up the cost, but SMART would have more leverage in its efforts to secure indemnity agreements.

A bureaucratic dispute between public agencies isn't a satisfactory reason to deny a promised crossing to residents of the Jennings Avenue neighborhood. The primary beneficiaries would be children who live east of the rail tracks, an area with several new apartment complexes, and attend school at Helen Lehman Elementary School on the west side of the tracks.

SMART also stands to benefit, as it would make it more convenient for residents of the neighborhood west of the tracks to reach the Coddingtown rail station.

The Santa Rosa City Council unanimously reaffirmed its support for the crossing in a vote last week. “If this crossing as designed isn't safe, then there isn't a safe crossing on SMART's line,” said Mayor Chris Coursey, a former spokesman for SMART. “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.”

The Public Utilities Commission concurred in its approval for the gated crossing, but the approval is only good until 2019. So time is of the essence.

It's time for SMART to tear down the fences - and build the promised rail crossing.

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