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State rail regulators back Santa Rosa Jennings Avenue crossing over SMART tracks

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California railway regulators on Thursday unanimously approved Santa Rosa’s request for a two-year extension to build a ground-level pedestrian and bicycle pathway over the SMART tracks at Jennings Avenue.

The crossing in northwestern Santa Rosa has been a point of friction between the North Bay’s commuter rail agency and the largest city across its current 43-mile line. Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit fenced off the more than century-old footpath in 2015 to prepare for passenger service, which began in August 2017.

The rail agency has cited public safety as the main issue preventing it from working with the city to construct the crossing, which is about a half-mile from an elementary school.

“Safety at at-grade crossings is a major concern and issue for railroads across the country,” Tom Lyons, SMART’s general counsel, told the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday. “It is a cause of concern that as the industry as a whole is working to reduce or eliminate at-grade crossings and enhance the safety, the commission is approving new ones.”

A legal arbiter for the state agency reiterated last month that the city had met public safety requirements with a set of proposed enhancements at the location. The commission, in approving Santa Rosa’s request, accepted that there were no added safety considerations associated with the decision to allow the extension through September 2021.

SMART’s 12-member board of directors has not taken a formal position on the Jennings Avenue crossing since the city received initial approval for it in September 2016, instead deferring to the recommendation of agency staff against it. However, San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, who serves as SMART board chairman, previously committed to placing the item on a future board agenda if the state commission approved Santa Rosa’s application.

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

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