A Win for Walkable and Rail-Friendly Santa Rosa

For many decades, only a few freight trains ever ran on the railroad tracks that cross downtown Santa Rosa at Jennings Avenue.

Bicyclists and pedestrians—including children from nearby Helen Lehman Elementary School—frequently cross the tracks at Jennings Avenue because there is no convenient or safe alternative in the neighborhood.

But today, the new Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) rail cars are being tested and showcased along the tracks from Santa Rosa to San Rafael. Full commuter rail service is slated to begin by the end of 2016. That’s why the unsanctioned walk-and-bike path crossing Jennings Avenue near the center of Santa Rosa needed to be made safer now, not later.

At the urging of Greenbelt Alliance and local residents, the Santa Rosa City Council recently approved a simple ground-level or “at-grade” crossing across the railroad tracks with automatic gates and red warning lights. This was a bold choice because in doing so, the City gave up an $8.2 million grant to build an expensive and unsightly concrete pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks.

Greenbelt Alliance had previously applauded the award of the transportation grant designated for the elevated bridge—it was a key piece of the North Santa Rosa Station Area Plan to create a vibrant, walkable neighborhood around the SMART station, which we helped shape.

After further research, we realized that a ground level at-grade crossing was the better choice, and far less costly. The massive and steeply graded bridge proposed for the crossing would have been a challenge to navigate for many walkers, bikers, strollers, and anyone mobility-impaired. We learned that constructing the bridge instead of a safer ground-level crossing at Jennings Avenue would trigger a little-known state regulation that would force the closing of other railroad crossings in the vicinity. That would be a big problem for residents, businesses, and traffic on streets in the popular West End of Santa Rosa.

Greenbelt Alliance supported the at-grade crossing when we found that a win-win option was possible—allowing the at-grade crossing to be built without closing neighboring railway crossings.

We and many others spoke up at the public hearing in support of the at-grade crossing to convince the City Council to choose the better, safer, less expensive option and return the grant money back to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. When the yes vote came in, the city council chambers erupted with cheers and applause.

One last step remains: Greenbelt Alliance is now joining the city and neighborhood in advocating to ensure that the state approves the at-grade crossing at Jennings Avenue without triggering other closures. Stay tuned!

 

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