Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit officials resist new Santa Rosa crossing

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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.

“We are under operations right now, so it’s a totally different story than it was two years ago,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who represents Santa Rosa on the SMART board. “We’ve had some accidents.”

Zane didn’t attend the meeting but said SMART officials are gathering additional information to present to the board, which she expects will make a decision within 30 days. While there are competing considerations, Zane said she will always lean toward the safest option.

“For me at the end of the day, it’s all about public safety. It’s about the kids,” she said.

The safety of people crossing the tracks at Jennings Avenue, as they had done safely for decades, became an issue as soon as it became clear that SMART would be restoring commuter rail service after decades of limited or nonexistent freight activity.

The city was originally concerned the California Public Utilities Commission would not approve the construction of a crossing at ground level without the removal of other crossings, such as one near Railroad Square.

The city first considered building a tunnel under the tracks, but ran out of time. It then explored constructing a $9 million bridge over the tracks, even securing an $8.2 million grant to help build it. But neighbors called illustrations of it a “monstrosity” and some leaders worried residents — including the dozens of children who live on the east side of the tracks but attend Helen Lehman Elementary on the west — would cut the fence and cross the tracks anyway.

The city instead passed up the grant money for the bridge and opted to build an “at-grade” crossing on its own dime. It took its chances before the CPUC, which in 2016 allowed the crossing over the objections of its own staff.

Then the city and SMART started wrangling over legal issues related to the “quiet zones” in the city, which exempt engineers from requirements to sound train whistles at intersections. SMART wants the city to shoulder the legal burden if it gets sued for accidents in such areas, but the city doesn’t see that as its responsibility.

That simmering dispute seems to have sapped SMART’s motivation to move forward on the crossing, said Steve Birdlebough, a retired attorney and member of the group Friends of SMART.

Birdlebough sees SMART’s resistance to the project rooted less in safety concerns and more in petulance on the part of its general manager.

“In effect what Farhad was saying was ‘If the city isn’t playing ball with us, we’re not going to play ball with them,’ ” Birdlebough said.

Mansourian, through a spokeswoman, declined requests for an interview.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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