The city’s application to build an at-grade crossing over the railroad tracks near downtown Davis was rejected last week by the California Public Utilities Commission.
Union Pacific Railroad erected a 3,800-foot-long fence along the tracks parallel to Olive Drive in late 2011, citing safety concerns about people illegally crossing the tracks.
The administrative law judge who ruled on the case recommended to the commission that Davis’ application be denied because “it is not possible to construct the proposed at-grade crossing in a manner that will ensure safe use,” according to a city news release.
Davis city staff had hoped that after the ruling came down in January, Commissioner Mike Florio, who normally processes railroad applications, would open the case up to the rest of the commission at its meeting in February to discuss the decision.
Instead, Florio left the item on the consent calendar of the commission’s Feb. 13 meeting, and, without notifying the city of Davis or its legal staff, approved the recommendation.
“It is beyond comprehension that the CPUC could find that a crossing that existed for over 70 years without an accident is all of a sudden unsafe because we want to add warning bells and lights,” Mayor Joe Krovoza said in a statement. “To deny the city and public the opportunity to make their case to the full commission before an action was taken goes contrary to the concept of good government.”
In late 2011, Union Pacific began building the fence, without city consent, to keep residents from unsafely and illegally crossing the tracks from the Olive Drive neighborhood, a lower-income community made up of about 700 residents, to downtown Davis.
Soon after the railroad company decided to build the fence, the city filed an application with the CPUC to build an at-grade crossing over the tracks, so as not to force Olive Drive residents to walk all the way to Richards Boulevard and through the tunnel to get downtown.
The plan submitted by the city would have replaced a crossing near Slatter’s Court — where one of three crossings was previously situated until Union Pacific workers ripped out the cement slabs during fence construction — that would have granted residents access to the rear of the Davis train depot.
City staff had projected the crossing would have cost about $1 million to build.
Hearings were held last fall, with Ken Hiatt, Davis’ community development and sustainability coordinator, and Bob Clarke, the city’s interim public works director, testifying in San Francisco for three hours each while being cross-examined by Union Pacific attorneys. The case then ended up in the lap of Administrative Law Judge Hallie Yacknin.
On Jan. 9, after reading the testimony from both sides, Yacknin released her decision that the crossing would not be safe to build.
With every argument the city made in favor of the crossing — that it would provide a link for Olive Drive residents to the rest of the city, that it would be safer for those who continue to illegally cross the tracks, that the city could afford construction and that it was legal — Yacknin found flaws.
But while Davis City Attorney Harriet Steiner told The Enterprise late last year that a “no” decision on the application likely would mean the end for the city’s chances of building the crossing, Anne Brunette, the city’s property management coordinator, says Davis isn’t finished just yet.
Because the CPUC did not contact Davis City Manager Steve Pinkerton, or Steiner, before the meeting at which it would approve the recommendation, Brunette says the city could still lobby for an opportunity to offer testimony to the commission to convince it to reconsider the application.
“The options are to spend additional time and resources in fighting the denial and attempting to get a rehearing from the CPUC,” Brunette said Thursday. “(Also) encouraging higher elected officials to come to assist us in (convincing) the commissioners to hear out the application.”
Brunette added that the City Council will have to decide how to proceed at one of its meetings in the coming weeks.
— Reach Tom Sakash at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @TomSakash