Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit officials resist new Santa Rosa crossing
Local passenger rail officials have told Santa Rosa they’re putting the brakes on plans for a $2.3 million rail crossing near Coddingtown Mall, but they’re saying very little publicly about their apparent reversal.
Top Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit officials recently informed Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey and other city officials that they are concerned about the safety of a proposed crossing for pedestrians and bicyclists at Jennings Avenue.
That’s a major about-face for SMART officials, who supported the crossing two years ago before state utility regulators and told Santa Rosa officials publicly they felt the crossing — which would block pedestrians from crossing the track when a train approaches — would be perfectly safe.
“We were told that circumstances had changed,” Mayor Chris Coursey said. “If they no longer support building the Jennings crossing, it would be extremely disappointing.”
Jennings Avenue used to cross over the tracks in an east-west direction, but at some point decades ago the crossing was blocked off for vehicles and the street now dead-ends at the track. Area residents continued to cross the tracks there in relative safety as rail service over the ensuing decades was sporadic or nonexistent.
When SMART began testing trains on the line in 2015, it fenced off the area and directed pedestrians and bicyclists to cross a quarter-mile north at Guerneville Avenue.
Coursey, who used to work as a SMART spokesman, declined to describe the meeting in detail, saying SMART officials should explain their new thinking to the public. He said three top SMART officials attended the meeting: General Manager Farhad Mansourian, Chief Engineer Bill Gamlin and SMART board of directors Chairwoman Deb Fudge.
In response to questions from The Press Democrat, Mansourian released a statement through a spokeswoman that shed little light on the issue.
“We recently met with the City of Santa Rosa, and we are in the process of looking at all of the issues,” the statement read. “This is an important safety matter, and we want to make sure we carefully examine everything involved.”
SMART officials would not detail the safety issues that concern them. At the meeting, SMART officials told the city that a year of experience operating the new rail line had caused them to reconsider, said Jason Nutt, the city’s director of Transportation and Public Works, who attended the meeting.
“They used the word ‘dangerous,’ ” Nutt recalled.
That would contradict what Gamlin told the Santa Rosa City Council in 2015, when he said the crossing would have the “full treatment” of safety features and would be “absolutely” safe. Since then, however, SMART has had several high-profile accidents along the line during its first year of operations.
In October, a 19-year-old Santa Rosa bicyclist who was on his cellphone and did not notice the lowered gates was hit by a train while riding across the tracks on West Steele Lane.
Three months later, a woman was struck and killed after authorities said she intentionally crossed into the path of a SMART train near Hearn Avenue.
Most recently, in June a man drove his furniture truck through the closed, flashing gates and onto the tracks at Todd Road, directly into the path of a northbound train going full speed, or 77 mph. The impact sheared the truck in half, shattered the front of the train, sent debris flying hundreds of feet and caused significant delays. The driver was injured but survived.