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SMART installs train crossing safety upgrade at deadly Rohnert Park crossing

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Following a pair of train collision deaths at the same Rohnert Park crossing two weeks ago, planned safety upgrades to the busy area were moved to the top of the list, SMART told city officials Tuesday.

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit installed sidewalk fencing earlier in the day at the first of three corners that cross the tracks on Golf Course Drive near Commerce Drive. The so-called Z gate is designed to slow pedestrians, trying to force them to be more aware as they walk around the fence and then over the tracks. The gate will not be installed at the fourth corner of the deadly crossing because of a spatial conflict with a roadway gate crossing arm that lowers when a train passes through.

Speaking at a City Council meeting Tuesday night, Rohnert Park’s vice mayor questioned the effectiveness of the new safety gate because he said it won’t stop people from walking across the tracks when a train is approaching.

By the end of the year, another 29 of the passenger rail line’s 62 road-level crossings from Larkspur to the northern terminus near Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport will get the same safety enhancement.

Top officials with the North Bay’s commuter rail agency met with Rohnert Park city staff Tuesday to discuss additional upgrades that might increase safety at Golf Course Drive, the deadliest crossing on SMART’s 43-mile line. Including the two people struck and killed by the train on back-to-back mornings in late June, the same crossing has experienced three deaths in SMART’s first 22 months of passenger service.

Some Rohnert Park City Council members vented frustration Tuesday night that SMART officials did not attend their meeting, calling it “a huge missed opportunity” to further collaborate and come up with solutions.

“I think it sends the wrong message to our community when there’s been two deaths on (those) tracks,” Mayor Gina Belforte said. “You’re talking about education and awareness, and this is the perfect venue to talk about what they’re doing. I’m really disappointed that SMART isn’t here.”

Vice Mayor Joe Callinan echoed the sentiment as he questioned the new safety gate SMART will spend more than $500,000 to install at 30 crossings.

He instead called on the rail agency to add lowering pedestrian gate arms that block people from walking onto the tracks as a train approaches, as already exist on several other crossings across the line.

“That Z gate, in my opinion, is not going to do much. To me, that’s putting a Band-Aid on something,” Callinan said. “If we really want to stop the problem, we need to take all the precautions we can. So what are we waiting for? I think that’s our answer, and unfortunately we’re not going to find that out until probably someone else gets hurt.”

Councilwoman Susan Hollingsworth Adams asked city staff whether the Z gate system would have prevented either of the two deaths on consecutive days — a 30-year-old woman who walked under the street gate crossing arm and tried to beat the coming train on June 27, and a 66-year-old man riding a bicycle while wearing headphones on June 28. Investigators think both incidents were accidental, though official rulings won’t be made until later this week.

The Z gate would not have prevented the first incident, Don Schwartz, assistant city manager, told City Council. There was a very good chance, however, it could have made a difference in the second, he said.

Previously, SMART officials said the safety measure would not have saved either person from being hit by the train given the individual circumstances. The cyclist, they said, should have been riding in the designated bike lane on the asphalt, instead of the wrong direction on the sidewalk, and would have been hindered by the lowered road gate crossing arm.

Schwartz called his statement to the City Council speculative and deferred to the expertise of officials with SMART when later asked to clarify.

He and other city staff also looked to quell any concerns about SMART missing the Tuesday night City Council meeting. They assured council members the conversations about ramping up safety are ongoing and could result in further recommendations for the Golf Course Drive crossing as soon as later this month.

For now, the city’s focus will be on increasing traffic enforcement near the crossing, raising awareness about safety around trains through public outreach and social media campaigns and exploring grant funding for more improvements. Ideas discussed at Tuesday’s meeting between SMART and city staff included the pedestrian gate arms, sidewalk signs that light up as trains approach and a warning horn.

“No matter what, everything should be looked at,” Belforte said. “Earphones in, distracted is kind of the new norm now. It’s too bad SMART’s not here to hear our concerns as a council, because we do help speak for the community. I think the community deserves to know what’s happening to that main intersection.”

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

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