Close to Home: Santa Rosa neighborhood stranded by SMART

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Transparency, oversight of staff, cooperation with other government agencies and focus on service to the community are basic principles of good government. Unfortunately, these have not been followed by SMART regarding Santa Rosa’s Jennings Avenue neighborhood.

The Jennings Avenue SMART crossing is an essential component of the city’s North Station area plan, as well as its general plan and bicycle-pedestrian master plan. It would also provide a key connection to the pedestrian and bicycle path along the rail corridor.

Pedestrians and bicyclists began walking across the railroad tracks that bisect Jennings Avenue more than 100 years ago. As the population grew, the crossing enabled the development of a community where people could easily walk to and from the post office, stores, a business park, a transit center, an elementary school, social services, affordable apartments and single-family homes. These all still exist on both sides of the crossing, with more housing zoned for the side opposite Helen Lehman School.

According to the 2014 draft environmental impact report, there were 115 crossings at Jennings on a typical day in October. This calculates to tens of thousands of crossings per year.

Soon after the voters approved funding for the SMART project, the city started examining options to maintain the Jennings Avenue connection. It found that a grade-separated crossing would require 900 feet of ramps (450 feet on each side) to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. This incline would be difficult for the elderly and disabled, particularly in the rain.

Additionally, ramp users would have to contend with confined hairpin turns that could conceal loiterers and facilitate illegal activity. Santa Rosa’s police and fire chiefs report that grade-separated crossings have higher instances of crime and illicit activity than at-grade crossings. Grade-separated crossings also present barriers to emergency services.

The at-grade crossing, by contrast, would meet the safety and legal requirements of the California Public Utilities Commission, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration. The at-grade crossing is also endorsed by the general public, local authorities, the city’s fire and police chiefs, the City Council, local public officials and community organizations. Additionally, the cost would be a fraction of a grade-separated crossing.

The Public Utilities Commission held multiple public hearings that showed overwhelming community support for the at-grade crossing. In September 2016, it issued a decision approving the at-grade crossing for Jennings Avenue. The approval, which is in effect until September 2019, included a detailed examination of the public interest and safety aspects of the grade-separated and at-grade crossing options. Numerous times during this process, SMART declared an at-grade crossing to be safe.

Following the decision, city and SMART staff members agreed that it would be most expeditious and cost-effective to have the actual construction work done by SMART’s contractors. The city secured funding and prepared and submitted the required documents to SMART for action in the summer of 2017.

Despite numerous requests from the public and the city, SMART has neither taken action nor disclosed its reasoning to the public. The August board meeting was canceled, apparently due to lack of items to be considered in public session, as was the July meeting. Why is SMART avoiding the community and the commonsense at-grade crossing? Is SMART playing out the clock until September 2019? Why? How does it trump the other regulatory agencies involved in this matter? We ask that this agency follow the principles in the first sentence of this article. Anything less is unacceptable.

Chris Rogers is vice mayor of Santa Rosa, and Gary Wysocky is a former Santa Rosa city councilman.

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