Durable Growth, Transportation

A towering surf of common sense crashes against an adamantine cliff of codes and regulations

Track crossing location

Track crossing location

A few days ago, I wrote about an upcoming hearing on a proposed at-grade crossing in Santa Rosa.

The proposed crossing would confirm and reopen an existing pedestrian/bicycle connection between the two halves of Jennings Avenue, passing over railroad tracks that were recently returned to use.  It was a crossing that, although never official, had long served as a route between homes, businesses, and schools on both sides of the track.

During the many years that the tracks were unused, no one had taken notice of the crossing.  But with freight service and now SMART trains returning to the tracks, the crossing had become a concern for the California Public Utility Commission.  After considering options, including the possibility of an $8.2 million separated grade bridge, the City of Santa Rosa applied for approval of an at-grade crossing.

In the earlier post, I advocated for the at-grade crossing.  I also expressed concern that the rule-bound rigidity of the process was so time-consuming that many of the students who could have used the crossing to reach elementary school will have driver’s licenses before a decision is rendered.

I attended the hearing two evening ago.  Nothing in the process caused me to change either earlier assessment.  But I nonetheless came away feeling optimistic about people and about urbanism.

I felt energized because I watched a neighborhood of modest means and little influence rally together in large numbers and with enthusiasm to argue for an amenity that they found essential to the well-being of their lives.  And also because the amenity that the neighborhood wanted was walkable urbanism.  It was a naturally occurring, unselfconscious advocacy for a more walkable urban world.  And that makes me happy.

On my way to the hearing, I stopped by the location of the proposed crossing.  The sun and fence didn’t allow a good photo of the tracks, but the signage was clear enough to give a mirthless chuckle.

Detour sign

Detour sign

The City, responding to the closure by the PUC, suggested a walk-around of 0.6 miles and 15 to 20 minutes to replace the crossing, a length of walk that usually deters walking.  And that’s without noting that a segment of the recommended walk would be along a five-lane arterial without a sidewalk, for which the walking route is a narrow sliver of bare dirt behind a curb and perched above a steep slope declining to a creekbed.

Give a moment to ponder that.  The PUC is suggesting that students on their way to elementary school walk on a two-foot dirt path between quickly moving cars and sometimes quickly moving water.  And they make that suggestion for the sake of public safety.

It was with that absurdity still vibrating in my head that I arrived at the hearing.

The evening opened with the City summarizing the steps to date, the different alternatives that were considered, the environmental process that was followed, and the application to the Public Utility Commission for the at-grade crossing.  The location of the elementary school west of the tracks and the growing number of elementary school students living east of the tracks were also noted.  It was an unexciting, but factual and necessary, summary.

An engineer for the Safety and Enforcement Division of the PUC then made what was the most unhelpful presentation of the evening.  He noted that the PUC policy is to reduce the number of at-grade crossings, that many more deaths occur at at-grade crossings than at separated grade crossings, and that the City should have pursued the $8.2 million separated grade crossing when the funds might have been available.

It was a presentation which left a wealth of unanswered questions.  Would people actually use the separated grade crossing or would they revert to cars?  Would students cut the fences and continue crossing at grade, without the safety measures?  How would the City justify plopping an $8.2 million dollar concrete structure into the middle of a residential neighborhood, a physical juxtaposition that would much like plopping a tyrannosaurus rex into a petting zoo?  Were the fatality totals adjusted for the deaths that were ruled suicides?

It was a perfect example of a solution that looked at the problem through a pinhole rather in its entirety, which is the antithesis of good urbanism.  Luckily, the neighborhood effectively destroyed most of his arguments as the evening continued.

Acknowledgement: Due to my poor stenography skills, the following “quotes” are imprecise.  I’ve assuredly missed words and probably even combined the sentiments of multiple speakers.  But, regardless of attribution, all of the points below were made during the public comments, which began with City representatives and elected officials, and then continued with neighborhood residents.

“The crossing, although never approved, has been in use since the late 19th century, predating cars.  And not one single fatality has been experienced in that century plus.”

“Speaking as a wheelchair user, I could never climb the separated grade crossing and would be isolated unless an at-grade crossing is provided.”

“As a parent, I’d never let my child use the separated grade crossing because they couldn’t see around the corners and wouldn’t know what dangers might be waiting for them.”

“If we want to reduce greenhouse gases, we must provide useful walkable solutions.”

“As a researcher on the issues of a post-carbon world, we need to encourage pedestrians by providing facilities that meet their needs.”

“I’m now 46 years old, but remember being a student at this school and crossing the tracks with friends on a Saturday afternoon to see movies.”

“Listening to the speakers this evening, we’re hearing common sense swamping rules.”

“If we wish to encourage seniors to give up driving when they’re no longer safe behind the wheel, we must provide walkable alternatives.”

“The at-grade crossing has been in multiple City of Santa Rosa plans, from the General Plan down, for many years.”

“The concern with the railroad tracks is 32 trains per day.  But nearby Dutton Avenue, which students also cross while walking to school, has 32 cars every 110 seconds during morning peak.  And the cars will be traveling faster than the trains.  Are we even asking the right question?”

While none of the speakers may have been overly eloquent, the overall voice of the neighborhood was highly eloquent.

The remaining question is whether that eloquent voice will be heard.  After the now completed hearing, which was targeted toward collecting public comments, a more rigorous evidentiary hearing, complete with testimony and cross-examination, will be held in San Francisco in mid-April.  PUC staff will then draft an order for consideration by the full Commission during the summer.  Overall it seems a welter of decision-making in which the desires of the neighborhood might be lost.

Having little prior experience with the PUC process, I don’t know what to expect as a final result, but hope that a neighborhood arguing with a unified voice for an urbanist solution won’t be lost to a blind reliance on rules that shouldn’t apply to a changing world.

I’ll keep you advised.

I recently glanced at my notes from the recent StrongTowns/Urban3 visit to the North Bay.  I spotted a quote from Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns that I’d written down, but somehow still not really heard.  Coming across it again, it spoke to me in a whole new way, with deep implications about urbanism.  I’ll ruminate in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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