SMART, Rohnert Park explore changes to deadly crossing

SMART and Rohnert Park city officials are exploring changes to the busy crossing where two people were struck and killed by passenger trains on back-to-back mornings last week, determining what, if anything, could be done to prevent such collisions.

The commuter rail agency revealed Monday it had targeted the crossing last November for a new safety system that would slow pedestrians traversing the tracks at Golf Course Drive near Commerce Drive. Funding for the sidewalk fencing system, dubbed a Z gate, was approved by the SMART board on May 15 in response to the death of a man at the Rohnert Park crossing last August.

It will be installed at 30 of SMART’s 62 road-level crossings, with work scheduled to be completed at the Rohnert Park crossing and 16 other locations by the end of the month. The second half of the $508,000 project is expected to be finished later this year.

A city task force and SMART officials returned Monday to the Rohnert Park crossing - where half of the rail system’s six fatalities have occurred - to determine whether other upgrades should be added to enhance safety and avoid more deaths. The investigation is routine after any train-related death, though two in two days increased the urgency of identifying potential changes, said SMART Police Chief Jennifer McGill.

“It’s one thing to look at the design on a piece of paper and another to stand out there and evaluate the crossing,” she said. “Obviously with two incidents two days in a row, we have to take a closer look. ... Is there something at this particular crossing we need to improve upon and enhance? That’s really the goal of why we were out there.”

Other safety measures, including more safety officers to monitor the line and adding a retractable pedestrian gate already employed at a handful of crossings up and down the system in Sonoma and Marin counties, will be considered. All options remain on the table, Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, said last week.

Even so, ensuring safety around railroad tracks requires that motorists, pedestrians and cyclists each abide by the rules of the road, said McGill and officials with the city’s public safety department.

“The pedestrian arms are only as good as somebody who follows the safety precautions,” said McGill. “The circumstances of the Thursday and Friday incidents, I don’t believe Z gates or pedestrian gates would have prevented either of those.”

Jimmie Joy Qualls, 30, originally of Brawley, California, was killed Thursday morning when she walked under a lowered gate crossing arm and was hit by a northbound train traveling as fast as 70 mph. The woman, known as “Rosebud” to friends, was homeless and had been acting strange the night before her death, according to Cecily Kagy, homeless outreach coordinator with the nonprofit COTS.

Qualls’ death has been devastating to her surviving family, including her mother and six siblings, said her aunt, Rhonda Villagran, of Los Angeles. The family has established a GoFundMe page to help cover the cost of a memorial service planned for Saturday in Ripon, California.

On Friday morning, a Petaluma man was struck and killed by a southbound train at the same crossing. The man, Gary Raymond Danning, 66, was identified Monday by the Coroner’s Office. Investigators said Danning was riding his bike on the sidewalk, wearing headphones with his head down and the hood of a sweatshirt over his head.

“We believe it to be an accident,” Rohnert Park Public Safety Deputy Chief Aaron Johnson said. “The engineer said he saw headphones on him, which we found at the scene. We don’t know if music was playing, but we would presume. So we do have a theory of distraction, absolutely.”

The first person killed at the crossing, Rohnert Park resident Joseph Jay De Frates, 29, was also wearing headphones when he walked in front of a northbound train last August. Like Danning, De Frates also had his head down, staring at his cellphone.

Three other people have been killed by SMART trains during the system’s first 22 months of passenger service. All three were ruled suicides, at or near crossings in Santa Rosa and Novato.

A cyclist was struck by a train and survived in October 2017, when he rode around a lowered gate in Santa Rosa. The man, who was wearing earphones and talking on his cellphone, did not notice the oncoming train or the lowered gates, police said.

The deadly Rohnert Park crossing, located about 1 ¼ miles north of the city’s lone SMART station, has long been seen as a challenging area because of the convergence of cars, cyclists, pedestrians and trains, according to city officials. An average of 35,000 vehicles cross the tracks every day, making it one of the busiest roadways in the city.

“It was always recognized way back when that the Golf Course Drive intersection was a difficult one and it does involve both the city and SMART,” said longtime Councilman Jake Mackenzie, who also previously served on the SMART board for 15 years. “Clearly there is a major effort from SMART and city staff to examine the situation closely since these tragic occurrences. I would expect that after today’s meeting, given what’s been mentioned, that there would be a consideration of possible additional gates.”

The Z gate system that will be installed this year at 30 SMART crossings, including the one in Rohnert Park, is designed to slow pedestrians by forcing them to traverse the tracks through a Z-shaped, fence-lined path.

SMART staff recommended installation of the fences in Rohnert Park last fall, but a lengthy permit process held up construction, McGill said. The agency needed approval from the state’s Public Utilities Commission, which oversees commuter rail projects, as well as PG&E and the city, she said.

“It’s not just an overnight process. We wish we could snap our fingers and do this overnight, but we have to follow a process,” she said.

The city will expedite the project any way it can, said Mary Grace Pawson, the city’s director of development services.

The Rohnert Park City Council will host SMART officials at its July 9 meeting to discuss safety improvements at the intersection, as well as increasing awareness near railroad tracks.

A rising number of homeless people living in encampments near the railroad tracks is another element that makes the Rohnert Park crossing difficult to manage. Several people live in cars or RVs in the adjacent park-and-ride parking lot, and both the nearby Chevron gas station and the parking lot of the Walmart a half-mile north are regular destinations for the homeless, often along or over the SMART tracks.

“That is very popular, and a lot of homeless folk hang out and cross over to come to Walmart, use bathrooms and get something to eat,” Kagy said. “I’m not sure what the solution is. There’s such a lack of resources in regards to shelter beds or anything else for that matter. Somebody else is going to die.”

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