Friday, March 18, 2016

The Water Was Deeper than I Expected

Fences blocking previous Jennings Avenue crossing
In recent posts, I mentioned being more fully occupied in the last few weeks than I’d planned.   Today, I’ll color in the picture.  It’s a story of urbanist advocacy.

Sometime in the past year, I became a member of Friends of SMART, a citizens group founded to wave the flag for the voter-approved SMART commuter rail system, to encourage SMART to live up to the promises made to the voters, and to advocate for land-use practices that will help make SMART transformational.

Although no one gave me the rules in advance, it seems that attendance at three consecutive Friends of SMART (FoS) makes one a lifetime member.  It was a standard I met sometime last year while coordinating on how to retain the second Petaluma SMART station at Corona Road rather than having it hijacked to less suitable site.

I don’t mind being a lifetime member of FoS.  They’re passionate folks whose beliefs are largely the same as mine.  I enjoy hanging out with people like them.

Thus, when the de facto but untitled vice president of FoS leaned across the table at the February Board meeting and asked for me to submit written testimony for an approaching hearing on a pedestrian and bicycle issue, I readily agreed.

I should have asked a few questions.

The subject of the hearing was the proposed Jennings Avenue at-grade crossing in Santa Rosa.  For a hundred years, residents of the neighborhood crossed the railroad tracks at Jennings Avenue, some heading westward to schools, some heading eastward toward shopping and entertainment, some only visiting friends.  And there have been many crossings in that century.  During a recent 8-hour period, the City of Santa Rosa counted more than a hundred pedestrians and bicyclists crossing the tracks.

But it seems that the crossing had never been officially permitted, so the pedestrians and bicyclists were trespassers.  As the day approached when SMART would begin testing cars on the tracks, the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) directed that the crossing be fenced.

Recognizing that the crossing was an essential connection within the neighborhood and an integral element of the Santa Rosa Bicycle Master Plan, the City began a search for a crossing that the CPUC would approve.  The City settled on two alternatives, a separated grade crossing and a gate-protected at-grade crossing.  And they found an agency willing to fund the $8 million tab for the separated grade crossing.

But, faced with a strong neighborhood preference for the at-grade alternative, fueled by concerns the separate grade alternative, rising twenty feet over the tracks, would hold hidden dangers for children and be impassible for the disabled even if the ADA standards were met, the City turned down the money and applied to the CPUC for the gate-protected at-grade crossing.

The division of the CPUC responsible for crossing safety objected strongly and the battle was on, a battle that I still find a bit silly, with adults playing legal games while children must walk a half-mile out of their way to reach their schools.  But those are the rules.

The first skirmish was a public participation hearing near the crossing.  The neighborhood scored points with a large turnout and unanimous support for the at-grade crossing.  But battles aren’t won at the first skirmish, so the parties girded for the next step, an evidentiary hearing in San Francisco earlier this week.

It was written testimony for this hearing that the FoS vice-president wanted from me.  I readily agreed because I play with words on the subject of urbanism every week.  How hard could written testimony be?

I dashed off a two-page letter, summarizing my knowledge of the Jennings Avenue crossing and playing it off my background knowledge of walkability and bikeability.  I sent off the letter for review.

What came back was my first wakeup call.  Prose wasn’t acceptable.  The format had to be in the form of a dialogue, with questions posed and responses made.  Admittedly, I sometimes have internal dialogues while thinking through the logic of a future post, but committing a dialogue to my keyboard was more difficult.  Especially when the direction was to rely on specific facts, not general knowledge, and to provide citations wherever possible.

After multiple drafts and repeated feedback, I was able to hammer out six pages of direct testimony, saw that it had been submitted to the administrative law judge overseeing the process, and assumed I was done.

I was again wrong.  As testimony from other parties also arrived, I was asked to prepare rebuttal testimony.  Of course, I agreed.  And then I was asked to reference the testimony of two other supporters of the at-grade crossing in the rebuttal to bring their insights into the official record.  After numerous drafts and a couple of late nights, my rebuttal testimony was complete and shipped to the judge.  Finally, I was done.

But I wasn’t.  Now I learned that I had to appear at the hearing in San Francisco to be cross-examined.

And so I found myself earlier this week sitting in a witness chair, under oath, inside a CPUC hearing room in San Francisco, being questioned by the CPUC attorney.

It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, but the errors I’d made in my testimony soon became evident.

I won’t name him, but a frequent reader and correspondent, who will recognize himself, noted in a recent email that Japanese children have learned to safely navigate at-grade crossings, a lesson that should be transferrable across the Pacific.  Although I haven’t visited Japan, what he said was consistent with my understanding, plus I knew my correspondent was a regular traveler to Japan, so I included the thought in my testimony.  I shouldn’t have.

To bring my expertise into question, the CPUC attorney homed in on the Japanese comment and asked me a series of questions about nature of the Japanese railroad system, including the extent to which passengers and freight share tracks.  To each question, I had to admit ignorance.  In retrospect, I shouldn’t have mentioned Japan.  A lesson for next time.

The attorney next turned to the beach access at-grade rail crossings in San Clemente, which have been quite successful and might be seen as a precedent for Jennings Avenue.  He queried me about whether the California Coastal Commission, in their mandated role of advocating for universal beach access, might have had an effect on the San Clemente decisions, making those crossings less of a precedent.  It was an interesting argument, but I had no basis to comment upon it, so again had to retreat.

I didn’t spend my entire time in the witness chair playing rope-a-dope, managing to make a couple of points about which I felt good.  Nor did I feel battered by the process.  But I could have done better.

I don’t regret agreeing to participate in the process.  It was good to collaborate with folks who aren’t spending their senior years in rocking chairs but are aggressively advocating for the public good, even though none live near Jennings Avenue.

And it was fun to watch another FoS member rigorously develop an argument that undermined the key CPUC contention that separated grade crossings are inherently safer than at-grade crossings.  His argument, which was buttressed by numerous examples, was that, when people are fearful of separated grade crossings, they use openings in the fences, which always seem to appear, to cross at grade without crossing protections.  As these last are more dangerous, the overall safety of separated grade crossings is diminished.

Ultimately, the argument was that separated grade crossings as isolated elements are inherently safe, but when components of a complete system, it’s not clear that they’re safer than at-grade crossings.  It was an insightful argument, well assembled.

Is my involvement completed with this effort?  Perhaps, but I’m not sure.  There may still be a hearing in front of the entire CPUC Board.  Meanwhile, I’ve learned lessons that I can apply next time.

And, at least for the next few days, my schedule has a little more breathing room in it.

 When I next write, I’ll tell of a woman I recently met who is doing something marvelous with bicycles and senior citizens.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

1 comment:

  1. Comment from Barry Bussewitz:

    Wow. This is intriguing, informative and frankly fascinating with its insight into the public deliberation process. And your deliberations as well, Dave! I am so grateful for your work on this. I live nowhere near Jennings but I get the damn picture. Eliminating and/or prohibiting historical use patterns is anathema to healthy human and wildlife habitats/environments, and the separated grade crossing looms as less than tolerable or useful. Thank you!!