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As deaths mount on Santa Rosa’s Stony Point Road, city is pressed to do more for safety

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Jennell Davies was almost home.

On a cool, clear night last October, the 39-year-old preschool teacher was walking home from dinner. It was about 9:50 p.m. when she tried to cross Stony Point Road, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares — and one of its deadliest for pedestrians and cyclists.

She and her boyfriend approached the intersection of Stony Point with Occidental Road, also a busy route for motorists driving through west Santa Rosa. They were at the intersection’s northwestern corner and were heading east across Stony Point.

She must have crossed there hundreds of times before, her father, Tom Davies, said he thought to himself on a recent visit to the site. An Oliver’s Market grocery store and a KFC fast-food restaurant are right there, a quick stroll from the apartment where she’d lived for more than a decade.

But that fateful night last year, Davies was more than halfway through the crosswalk when she was struck by a northbound pickup, throwing her body about 70 feet north along the eastern side of Stony Point. Her boyfriend had stopped on a concrete median that abuts the crosswalk. He could only watch, helpless.

She died after a police officer and then fire and medical crews could not revive her.

A small memorial stands near the spot today, newly adorned Thursday with flowers Tom Davies placed on his latest visit from his home in San Ramon.

He first traveled to the intersection less than a week after his daughter died. As he and his wife stood at the northeastern corner of the intersection, a car exited from westbound Highway 12 and whipped up the ramp to Stony Point, Davies said. It would have hit him if his wife hadn’t grabbed his coat and pulled him out of the way, he said.

Jennell Davies was one of three people on foot or bike who were fatally struck in a seven-week span last year along Stony Point Road near Highway 12. Since her Oct. 23 death, her father has hired personal injury attorneys to help him probe Santa Rosa’s traffic system and statistics and to file a claim against the city for damages.

Officials should have known the intersection was dangerous and should have made changes, he alleged in a claim that has since been denied. Now, seeing no concrete action to improve traffic safety at the site, he is considering a lawsuit to force the city to address the dangers posed to people not in vehicles.

“My concern is for the rest of the people who were her neighbors for 10 years,” Davies said. “If we can do a better job there, it might save somebody else.”

Stony Point Road runs a half-mile from its intersection with West Third Street on the north to where it crosses Sebastopol Road on the south, roughly bisected by Highway 12 running below an overpass. The stretch is one of the busiest roadways in Santa Rosa, carrying about 43,000 vehicles daily near the Stony Point Plaza shopping center, a volume that falls just short of the bustling Highway 101 interchange at Steele Lane, according to city traffic count data.

It is also one of the deadliest, accounting for about 10% of all fatal bike and pedestrian crashes in the city between 2009 and 2018, according to collision data compiled by UC Berkeley researchers. Only two other corridors — the blocks where Mendocino and College avenues meet and a roughly 1,500-foot section of Santa Rosa Avenue near Court Road and Powderhorn Avenue — saw as many deaths over the same period, according to the data.

The perilous stretch of Stony Point is bracketed by the Oliver’s Market grocery store and the apartments where Davies lived on the north end, and the shopping center and the Joe Rodota Trail on the south. Near the midpoint, Davies and two other people were killed in September and October.

Mathew Eck, 37, was hit twice while crossing Occidental Road near Stony Point Road at about 9:20 p.m. Sept. 15. Sidney Falbo, a 20-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College student, was bicycling to an afternoon class on Oct. 30 and trying to cross Stony Point Road near the trail when she was struck by a dump truck turning off Highway 12.

The city’s own master plan for bicycling and pedestrian upgrades has singled out the area as exceptionally dangerous. It is one of three areas citywide known as a “high-injury network” — where people walking or riding bikes are most often injured or killed — according to the updated bike plan.

Eris Weaver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, said the numerous places where highway ramps intersect with Stony Point make the stretch of road a hazardous maze, especially for pedestrians and cyclists.

“Frankly, I avoid that (area) if I can when I’m on a bike,” she said.

The toll of Stony Point deaths in the past year now stands at five people — including Lusiano Garcia, 35, who was hit July 5 on his bike south of city limits near Millbrae Avenue, and Richard Burns, 53, who was fatally struck while walking this March 20 near Barndance Lane, south of Hearn Avenue.

As the deaths have mounted, Weaver and relatives of some of the victims have urged the city to do more to safeguard pedestrians and cyclists.

Weaver has suggested altering the width of lanes and the timing of lights, adding physical barriers between cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles and putting in controlled crosswalks at spots where people are crossing.

“What are we willing to do to stop these deaths?” she asked in an op-ed published in The Press Democrat in March.

So far the city’s response has been limited.

Police ramped up enforcement in the area after the three deaths last year. City traffic officials reviewed officers’ reports and analyzed signal timing in the Stony Point-Occidental intersection. The bike master plan, which the City Council approved in March, calls for further study of the corridor and potentially improving some of its crosswalks.

But with no specific on-the-ground improvements slated, relatives of those killed are left looking for answers.

“How many people gotta die?” said Tony Falbo, father of the 20-year-old SRJC student. “How many people have to get hurt before you change anything?”

Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm insists the city is not ignoring the issue or the cries for change.

“I’m sorry that people are thinking that we aren’t moving fast enough,” he said, adding, “When does government move fast enough?”

He noted that the city had improved bicycle and pedestrian amenities in southwest Santa Rosa, including new crosswalks with pedestrian beacons in some places on Stony Point. Many of the future projects called for in the new bike plan don’t come with any funding attached or involve easy solutions, he said.

The City Council “has a responsibility to do its part. I think we have and we are,” Schwedhelm said. “If there’s that magic thing that we can do that will ensure success, I’m all ears. But because there’s so many different dynamics, I don’t think there’s one thing.”

Santa Rosa police determined that Sidney Falbo, Jennell Davies and Mathew Eck were all at fault in the crashes that led to their deaths. Sgt. Summer Gloeckner of the department’s traffic division said pedestrians and bicyclists need to exercise care, as do motorists.

“Our messages involve asking the public to be cautious and obey the rules of the road, whether you are in a car, on a bike or on foot,” Gloeckner said.

Santa Rosa police conduct special enforcement operations along Stony Point with grant funding from the state Office of Traffic Safety, which doesn’t require Santa Rosa to target certain locations, Gloeckner said. Santa Rosa’s most recent enforcement operation near Stony Point and Occidental roads was in early June.

Police choose the site of those operations based on traffic data or incidents, Gloeckner said, adding that 2018 data showed more than 30 DUI arrests in the city on Stony Point and at its intersections with Sebastopol Road, West College Avenue and West Third Street.

“The three fatalities last year did prompt us to do some extra enforcement, but we also have the rest of the city to cover and address those traffic complaints as well,” Gloeckner said.

Eck was the victim of a still-unidentified hit-and-run driver while crossing just west of Stony Point Road, Gloeckner said. But he also was crossing outside of a crosswalk, she said. Police have made no arrests in the case.

Falbo was on her yellow beach cruiser pedaling north on Stony Point, traveling on the western sidewalk and facing oncoming traffic, police said, when she rode into the crosswalk on a green signal but into the path of the dump truck making a right turn onto southbound Stony Point after exiting eastbound Highway 12, according to police.

Police said that Davies was facing a red crosswalk light when she was hit, citing surveillance video footage and witness accounts. The pickup driver cooperated with police and wasn’t charged as a result of the crash.

That surveillance video came from a nearby business, as none of the crosswalks near Highway 12 are monitored by city cameras. Santa Rosa has installed video cameras at several major intersections, including at least three places along Stony Point, but none record video, according to Rob Sprinkle, the city’s deputy director of traffic engineering.

“The cameras there are used for detection of vehicle traffic and occasional surveillance of traffic during reviews of signal operations,” he said.

After the last year’s spate of fatal collisions, the city reviewed relevant police reports and checked the signal timing in the area, Sprinkle said.

The city generally follows state guidelines that propose timing signals to allow most people to cross easily at a rate of 3.5 feet per second. Sprinkle said the city has made exceptions in some areas, such as an intersection in northwest Santa Rosa with a higher-than-normal population of seniors living nearby, but hasn’t done so anywhere on Stony Point.

Doug McKenzie, a member of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, said the city should consider adopting the strategy it uses at certain downtown intersections: giving pedestrians a few seconds of head start before vehicles get a green light.

“That’s something that could happen today,” McKenzie said.

Tony Falbo voiced his support for the same idea, calling it an “easy fix.”

Sprinkle said the city was considering implementing some extra lead time for pedestrians in the area, specifically at crossings near the Joe Rodota Trail and at Occidental Road. He acknowledged it was a step with “minimal cost” but cautioned against considering it a silver bullet.

“That doesn’t solve everything,” Sprinkle said. “People still have to look for the pedestrians.”

Weaver, the bicycle coalition director, said she noticed that a crosswalk on the east side of Stony Point near the Joe Rodota Trail does not include any timed walk period and is not protected by a stop sign to slow vehicles entering eastbound Highway 12.

She has urged the city to deepen its planning for how motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians will share the road.

“People do stupid things, so we need to integrate that knowledge into how we design stuff,” Weaver said.

Sprinkle said the city had looked at moving that crosswalk near the eastbound on-ramp farther south, eliminating a “pork chop” island to streamline crossings and requiring right-turners to heed the traffic signal at the intersection but lacked necessary funding to make any substantial structural changes.

No specific changes are in the works, according to the bike and pedestrian plan. Any tweaks would be determined after an upcoming study of the area, Sprinkle said.

“We don’t have a lot of money, so we want to make sure that what do is most cost-effective and effective for the bikes and pedestrians,” he said.

But according to city records, none of the Stony Point crosswalks were included in Santa Rosa’s bid last year to improve in 90 days more than 100 crosswalks citywide. Most were located downtown or in the eastern half of Santa Rosa, which has long had a lock on political power.

Southwest Santa Rosa, including the newly annexed Roseland neighborhood, saw the smallest concentration of the work.

As he did his research after his daughter’s death, Tom Davies saw that the intersection where she died wasn’t on the list of crosswalk projects — a discovery that has only deepened his frustration.

“I just really think that intersection there is long overdue for upgrades,” he said.

Sprinkle said the grant project was focused on improving “uncontrolled crossings” that lacked stop signs or traffic signals to slow cars. Also, officials identified the locations targeted for improvement several years ago, before Roseland was annexed into the city, Sprinkle said.

Weaver contends that problem has festered because of the relative lack of influence of southwestern Santa Rosa, which is less affluent and has never had one of its residents elected to the City Council.

“If this was happening in Fountaingrove, you would have seen a faster response,” she said.

“I strenuously disagree,” said Schwedhelm, the mayor, and the lone council member who lives on the western side of Highway 101. “I care about the safety of the entire community.”

Falbo is convinced it will take legal action to get the city to do more.

“Unfortunately, it’s probably going to take somebody having to sue,” he said.

Sunday will be the first Father’s Day for Tony Falbo and Tom Davies since their daughters died. The small memorials paying tribute to the lives of the women are decked out in purple, the favorite color of both.

Davies said he plans to spend the day with his surviving daughter and four grandchildren. They’ll enjoy some pizza and swimming. Usually, the day would be cause for a big family reunion.

“This year we won’t be doing that,” he said Thursday, “because we’ll be short one.”

He spoke while looking out across Stony Point as midday traffic sped by. All of a sudden, he pointed and shouted as a man carrying a pizza box narrowly avoided being struck while walking across the road in nearly the same spot where his daughter was hit. Minutes later, as he and his wife prepared to cross themselves, a car exiting westbound Highway 12 cut them off. The walk sign clearly showed the couple had the right of way.

Davies envisions a different, safer look for Stony Point someday, perhaps with a pedestrian island and clearer signs to prevent deaths like Jennell’s. The need for change is obvious to him, and he wants to witness the day it comes to pass.

“Boy, I’d like to be here,” he said, reaching for his wife’s hand. “I’m gonna be here that day.”

News Researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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