The North Bay’s year-old commuter rail line and the region’s largest city are embroiled in an increasingly entrenched public standoff over whether to construct a long-planned footpath across the tracks in northwest Santa Rosa — a crossing sought by the adjacent neighborhoods, bicyclists and some of the train system’s most vocal advocates.
Santa Rosa favors the pedestrian and bicycle crossing at Jennings Avenue, a project first outlined almost a decade ago and endorsed once again by the City Council this week. The crossing is meant to restore an east-west footpath that dates back to at least the early 20th century, according to the city, and until it was fenced off by SMART in 2015 remained a key community connector.
But the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system, which previously backed the ground-level crossing and twice offered letters of support for grant funding to build it, abandoned the concept about a year ago and has sidestepped any scheduled public discussion of the disputed pathway.
SMART officials say the at-grade crossing would endanger path users, including schoolchildren. The proposed crossing, about 1 mile north of the downtown Railroad Square station, would traverse tracks where oncoming trains usually travel at 35 mph, according to SMART.
But public comments from Santa Rosa council members over the stalled project reflected the city’s growing sense of frustration. Some were confused by the impasse. Others were incensed. The path is meant to serve an area of the city that otherwise lacks suitable pedestrian access across the tracks.
“I think it’s ridiculous that we’re having a conversation about the safety of this crossing at this point,” said Mayor Chris Coursey, a former SMART spokesman. “If this crossing as designed isn’t safe, then there isn’t a safe crossing on SMART’s line. It’s a railroad that needs to be integrated with these communities. Crossings are part of the design. This crossing needs to be part of the design.”
SMART officials, however, say public safety concerns now make the long-envisioned project unworkable. Since the taxpayer-supported train system launched in August 2017, two people have been killed by SMART trains in deaths that authorities ruled suicides, while a third fatality on the tracks in Rohnert Park was determined to be an accident.
Additional ground-level crossings in populated areas heighten safety risks, SMART officials contend.
“We’ve reconsidered,” said Bill Gamlen, SMART’s chief engineer. “Just because we maybe thought something worked in the past and we know more now doesn’t mean we should fall back to our old position. We’re comparing convenience against safety, and I don’t think you can put a price on safety.”
The dispute has escalated in the public arena in recent weeks. Officials on both sides have traded emails and letters reasserting their positions; Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Chris Rogers confronted Deb Fudge, the chairwoman of SMART, last week at a board meeting; and most recently, at the City Council meeting on Tuesday, a unanimous council endorsement to move forward with a number of steps to advance the project without SMART.
“We need to find a way to get this done in spite of some folks that may be throwing up some barriers for us,” said Councilman Tom Schwedhelm. “Let’s just get it done in the most efficient way possible.”
When the de facto crossing at Jennings Avenue was fenced off by SMART three years ago, detours were established a half-mile to the south, at West College Avenue and less than a quarter-mile to the north, at Guerneville Road. For some residents near the tracks those options have proved to be a major inconvenience.