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State rail regulators to decide fate of Santa Rosa’s Jennings Avenue SMART crossing

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Meeting on Jennings Avenue crossing

Thursday’s Public Utilities Commission meeting starts at 10 a.m. at 505 Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco. The meeting can be streamed live online at www.adminmonitor.com/ca/cpuc.

State rail regulators in San Francisco are set to vote Thursday morning on Santa Rosa’s request to restore a ground-level pedestrian and bicycle pathway over the railroad tracks at Jennings Avenue.

The city has sought the return of the historic east-west crossing in northwestern Santa Rosa since receiving the California Public Utilities Commission’s approval to build it in September 2016. It is seeking a two-year extension to work out a deal for it with Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, which now owns the rail right of way. A legal arbitrator for the state agency last month recommended granting the request to construct the footpath through September 2021, stating that the city’s plan for added enhancements met public safety requirements.

SMART, the North Bay’s commuter rail agency, opposes a ground-level crossing at Jennings Avenue, citing ongoing safety concerns.

In 2015, two years before the launch of service, SMART fenced off the pathway, which dates to at least the early 20th century.

SMART previously supported the city’s plan to build an overcrossing at the location, submitting a letter of support as part of a regional transportation grant application for $8 million toward the $9 million project. Santa Rosa ultimately reverted back to a ground-level crossing, noting the access challenges for disabled people and the overcrossing’s general incompatibility with the neighborhood. It returned the grant funding.

SMART submitted letter in support of the city’s updated plans before reversing course once passenger service started. SMART did not return a request for comment Monday about the Public Utilities Commission’s upcoming vote on the crossing. If approved Thursday, the two-year extension would place the ball back in the court of SMART and the largest city along its rail line, leaving the two entities to come to an agreement over the long-disputed issue.

With the commission’s renewed backing, the city would feel well positioned to continue its push for the crossing, said Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Chris Rogers, a SMART board member.

“For us, it was critical to get the extension to keep the door open to work with SMART and have conversations with the (SMART) board about where do we go from here,” he said. “We are waiting for the finality of the Oct. 10 meeting ... and we will definitely be reengaging with them and trying again.”

The 12-member appointed SMART board, which sets the rail agency’s policy, has never formally taken up the crossing at a public meeting.

However, San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, chairman of the SMART board, said last month that he would request it be placed on an upcoming agenda if the Jennings crossing again receives the green light from state regulators.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who has sat through fruitless negotiations between the two factions, saw the state’s looming approval as a step in the right direction.

“My hope is that the city and SMART will be able to work together and develop a (plan) that works for both sides,” he said last month after the legal arbitrator delivered her findings. “Now that the clock is not going to run out, this extended time period will allow for a compromise.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

Meeting on Jennings Avenue crossing

Thursday’s Public Utilities Commission meeting starts at 10 a.m. at 505 Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco. The meeting can be streamed live online at www.adminmonitor.com/ca/cpuc.

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