By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa is preparing to tackle one of the thorniest issues related to the arrival of commuter rail service to the city — where people should be allowed to cross the tracks.
The city this week begins a formal study of a controversial plan to eliminate one railroad crossing near downtown in order to be allowed to build another one a mile north.
With trains set to rumble down the tracks by 2016, the city has been searching for a way to help pedestrians and bicyclists safely cross the tracks at Jennings Avenue, an east-west road bisected by the rail line just south of Coddingtown Mall.
Numerous businesses and apartment buildings line either side of the tracks near Jennings Avenue, and area residents — including dozens of schoolchildren — have for decades crossed the rails as a shortcut.
The City Council considered several options to fix that potentially hazardous situation, including building an overcrossing or an undercrossing or just allowing the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit Authority to put up walls or fences to keep people out.
But the council ultimately decided that a ground-level, or at-grade, crossing made the most sense.
There’s just one problem. To get permission for such a new crossing at Jennings, state Public Utilities Commission officials will require the city to close at least one of several streets that cross the tracks near Railroad Square.
The idea is rankling several Railroad Square business and property owners who say it jeopardizes their livelihoods and could limit the development potential around the future rail station.
“Closing off a street in Railroad Square is penny-wise and pound foolish,” said Allen Thomas, a West End resident and former planning commissioner hired by Western Farm Center to represent its interests. “It’s basically taking one problem and trading it for a whole other set of problems.”
The commission’s goal is to decrease the number of at-grade rail crossings in the state to reduce the risk of rail collisions. Staff members have told the city it will not approve a new crossing unless an equal or greater number are eliminated from the same area, explained Christopher Chow, a spokesman for the CPUC.
“Crossings put the crossing users and those on the trains at risk,” Chow said.
West Sixth, West Seventh and West Eighth streets all have been identified as rail crossings that could be closed in an effort to convince the commission to approve a new crossing at Jennings Avenue.
Of those streets, it’s likely that that either Seventh Street or Eighth Street would be selected for closure. Both streets directly lead to Western Farm’s parking lot, Thomas said.
“There is absolutely no way that Sixth Street is going to be closed,” Thomas said, calling its inclusion in the study a red herring.
That’s because it’s the closest to the future rail station, Thomas noted. In addition, the city just finished the Sixth Street undercrossing, a $1.3 million project to reconnect the east and west ends of a street severed decades ago by Highway 101.
If either Seventh Street or Eighth Street are closed, it would jeopardize Western Farm Center’s business by making it harder for customers to access it, and would encourage traffic to cut through its parking lot, Thomas said.
The owners of Western Farm, which has been in its current location since 1967, support making all city rail crossings safe. But they don’t support shifting what is essentially a Jennings Avenue problem onto Railroad Square, Allen said.
The city ought to just go back to the earlier idea of building a bridge over the rail line at Jennings Avenue, eliminating the need to close any streets, he said.
But that solution is more than three times as expensive. The ground-level crossing is estimated to cost $451,000, while the price tag for an overcrossing soars to $1.7 million.
If the city does nothing, SMART will simply build walls to stop people from crossing the tracks at Jennings, which at $140,000 would be the cheapest option.
But cutting off that route would force people to instead go a third of a mile to the north to Guerneville Road or two thirds of a mile to the south to West College Avenue. Some fear people will just go around the wall to cross, creating a dangerous situation.
Dozens of children who live in apartment complexes on the east side of the tracks attend the Helen Lehman Elementary School on the west side, said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.
“Those kids are going to cut holes in the fence and go to school. They’re kids,” Helfrich said.
While the crossing at Guerneville Road is only about a third of a mile away, Helfrich said expecting people to walk or bike around is unreasonable given the distance and busy traffic.
“No parent is going to tell their kids ‘Go ride your bike down Guerneville Road,’” Helfrich said.
If approved, the ground-level crossing would be only for pedestrians and bicyclists, not cars. It would have to cross two sets of tracks at that location. The paths leading to it would be at least eight feet wide and would be handicapped accessible. Warning lights would indicate when the train is coming and gate arms would drop to block people from crossing.
PUC staff originally recommended the city identify two other crossings to close in exchange for the Jennings Avenue crossing, which would meet the commission’s goal of reducing of the number of crossings.
But commission staff have since said they would support a one-for-one swap given that Sixth, Seventh and Eighth are so close together, said Rick Moshier, director of the city’s Transportation and Public Works Department.
“Giving up one of those counts for more than giving up one somewhere else,” Moshier said.
The city has committed $275,000 to study the issue through an environmental impact report. The scoping period for the EIR opened this week, meaning city planning staff sent out notices to the neighborhood and have begun soliciting comments on what the EIR should study.
The city will host a public meeting to explain the project and take comments at 6 p.m. Dec. 4 at the Finley Community Center. The EIR is expected to be completed by next summer with council approval of the project by the fall.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @citybeater.