Rohnert Park asks SMART to drop train speed through intersection after 5th fatality

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Rohnert Park is calling on SMART to reduce the speed of its commuter trains through a busy intersection where five people have been struck and killed in the past 13 months, just as the City Council approved an outside review of safety at its crossings on Tuesday.

The city’s request, which will be formally submitted in a letter to Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, will be finalized later this month and ask that SMART’s board discuss safety at the Golf Course Drive crossing at a future meeting. In the letter, the council will also renew its request for gate arms that block sidewalks to be added at the intersection, where a woman took her life on Sept. 26, the second suicide and fifth death in that area.

Rohnert Park Mayor Gina Belforte said her plea for the rail agency to lower the high speed of trains passing through the intersection while the city-funded study is completed would help address an element attracting people to the site to end their lives. SMART’s compliance, she said, would show its willingness to work with the city on improvements at the problematic intersection, especially given continued reluctance among the agency’s staff to meet publicly with the council.

“That would at least show they have a concern to the folks who live in Rohnert Park and work and serve our community,” Belforte said at Tuesday night’s council meeting. “This area in Rohnert Park is becoming a magnet for people who want to commit suicide. It’s taking a toll. I just really feel, as a city, we have to do something.”

Officials with SMART contend the trains’ speed was not a factor in the deaths at the crossing, which together represent half of the system’s fatalities since passenger service began in August 2017. The rail line is designed to hit top speeds of 79 mph, which it achieves at points along its current 43-mile trip from San Rafael to Santa Rosa’s northern outskirts near Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

Jennifer McGill, SMART’s public safety chief, would not confirm the train’s speed in last month’s death of the 41-year-old Rohnert Park woman, calling it “not relevant.” The train traveled as fast as 68 mph through the Rohnert Park intersection near Commerce Boulevard during one of the collisions, which was among the three that were ruled accidents.

“That was inattention, which had nothing to do with the speed of the train,” said McGill, who for the past month has doubled as SMART’s operations manager, in an interview last week. “The train speed in this case and the other suicide is not relevant. That individual was there for a specific purpose.”

McGill said SMART is doing all it can to minimize the loss of life, such as the recent installation of sidewalk fencing at 30 of its 63 crossings, including at Golf Course Drive, to force pedestrians and cyclists to pay more attention as they cross the tracks. SMART also increased patrols along the entire rail line by a private security service after a spate of five deaths over 19 days this summer — three of which occurred near the same Rohnert Park crossing.

She said she was unaware of SMART ever dropping the train’s speed at any location along the line during its more than two years of operations, and would not comment further about the Rohnert Park crossing until after the city-funded consultant study is completed next spring. Repeated email, phone and text message requests for an interview with Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, have gone unanswered over a two-week period.

Longtime Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie, a former SMART board member, on Tuesday questioned Belforte about the purpose of slowing the train through the city. At 40 mph or even 30 mph, he said, a collision between a pedestrian or bicyclist and SMART’s 149-ton train would still be fatal — namely if someone were intent on taking their own life.

“Half of the speed at which it’s operating at the moment, you think that’s going to make the train engineer be able to stop that train any faster if somebody goes out in front of it?” Mackenzie said at Tuesday’s council meeting. “I do not believe so.”

Supervisor David Rabbitt, who serves on SMART’s board, also wondered what the benefit of reducing the train speed would be with regard to enhancing safety.

“I think everything is about acceptable levels of risk,” said Rabbitt. “Certainly if the train went 2 mph the entire trip and you can walk faster than the train can travel, it would be safer. You then have to weigh that against what you’re trying to achieve and the greater good of the community.”

Belforte defended her request for reduced speeds through Rohnert Park in an interview Wednesday, and once more extended an invite for SMART staff to join the city at the table to work on possible solutions.

“People are dying on the train tracks, and we’re OK with that?” she said. “How are we not saying, ‘What else can we do, and what can we do to make it better?’ We’re leaders. Our job to make sure what we’re doing is safe for our community. How does that not apply to SMART?”

She added that she previously tried to ask Rabbitt to help in the process, but was rebuffed and told that SMART’s only responsibility was the train, and any additional safety enhancements were up to the city. Rabbitt denied her claim on Wednesday and said that it was up to both SMART and the cities it passes through to collaborate on safety improvements. He called Rohnert Park’s decision to fund the $66,000 study a good first step.

Rohnert Park Vice Mayor Joe Callinan was the lone no-vote on the study, believing it was SMART’s responsibility to pay for a safety review along its rail line. City Manager Darrin Jenkins reported that he asked SMART to share in the cost of the study, but agency staff declined, citing the $75,000 it already spent to install the new sidewalk fencing at the city’s three crossings.

“We know that that’s a serious intersection; we know that there’s problems,” Callinan said. “I’m just amazed that they’re not handling this. I care about the citizens of Rohnert Park and I want to do what’s best. I just feel like they’re bailing out of their responsibility. That’s terrible.”

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

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