SMART’s Claim that the Jennings crossing would harm safety

by Willard Richards

I listened to the video recording of the September 19, 2018 SMART Board meeting to again hear Farhad Mansourian’s comments on the proposed Jennings Avenue at-grade pedestrian crossing in Santa Rosa. He began his remarks with, “It is nothing but a safety issue for us.” and ended with, “It is not about money, it is not about politics, it is about public safety.” Bill Gamlen’s August 20 letter to Jason Nutt takes the same position. This simplifies the debate. The effect of building the Jennings crossing on pedestrian safety should be subjected to a thorough, rational analysis.

If taken to an extreme, comments by some SMART staff could be interpreted as saying SMART does not want pedestrians near the tracks. This is not the view of most of the SMART Board and staff and is certainly not what the public and transportation planners want. We want to get people out of their cars and to instead walk and bicycle. Encouraging that requires providing paths that are safe and efficient.

If we agree we do want pedestrians crossing the tracks, then the question becomes where to cross the tracks, and what safety features should crossings have? And specific to the current debate, what are the differences between the two crossings that people traveling along Jennings Avenue might use?

The present detour to the Guerneville Road crossing has these disadvantages:
• It adds 0.6 miles to the one-way distance pedestrians and bicyclists on Jennings Avenue must travel.
• This increased distance has encouraged cutting the fences at Jennings Avenue and adding aids such as boards or chairs to climbing over the fences. Fortunately, fence cutting has decreased recently. However, youths have been observed going over the fence without aids. Unsafe crossing the tracks at Jennings Avenue will be an issue as long as the detour is the alternative.
• In his General Manager’s report on September 19, Farhad Mansourian mentioned ducking under the pedestrian gates. The pedestrian gates at Guerneville road have no skirts under the gate to discourage this but the proposed gates at Jennings Avenue do have skirts.
• Pedestrians walking toward the west on the sidewalk can step into the adjacent bicycle path to avoid all gates on the second rail track.
• The part of the detour along the multi-use path is remote from other people.
• The part of the detour along Guerneville Road is on a path surrounded by shrubbery on both sides.
• The part of the detour along North Dutton Avenue is on a sidewalk beside a busy, four-lane road. There are many curb cuts and side streets. Cars turning left could be more focused on approaching traffic than on pedestrians on the sidewalk.

The present detour to the Guerneville Road crossing has these advantages:
• The two tracks are separated enough that they are crossed one track at a time with separate gates for each track.
• Trains are traveling more slowly here than at the Jennings crossing.
The proposed crossing at Jennings Avenue:
• Has all the required and recommended safety features, including all those at the Guerneville Road crossing.
• Has skirts under the pedestrian gates to discourage ducking under the gates.
• Crosses two tracks at once, but if a second train is approaching, the lights will continue flash, the bells will continue to sound, and the gates will stay down until it is safe to cross.
• Has no nearby bicycle path that pedestrians can use to avoid the pedestrian gates.

If it is all about safety, I believe these comparisons show that building the Jennings crossing would improve pedestrian safety.
Building the crossing also makes a strong contribution to public convenience and to the paths that encourage walking and bicycling. I favor building a path that goes over Highway 101 near the Santa Rosa Junior College to Coddingtown, near the SMART Guerneville Road Station and then continues across the SMART tracks at Jennings Avenue and to the west along Jennings Avenue. This path is in the City‘s General Plan 2035, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan 2010, and the North Santa Rosa Station Area Specific Plan. The Jennings crossing would be used by students walking to the Helen Lehman school and by neighborhood residents walking to Coddingtown and nearby shops and government services.