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SMART's Strategy For Recent Pedestrian Deaths Addresses Mental Health, Homelessness

PETALUMA (KPIX 5) -- In the 17 months of the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit's (SMART) operation, nine people have died on its tracks, but five of those have come in just the last month. So, SMART's Board of Directors met Wednesday to discuss how to keep people off its tracks and out of harm's way.

The SMART trains move fast through much of Rohnert Park, too fast for Charles Robinett, who lives near the rail line and says they can literally sneak up on people.

"You can't hear the train until it's right up on top of you…coming up from behind," Robinett said.

Four people have died on the tracks at or near the crossing of Golf Course Drive, and it's been so unnerving at the gas station there that Chevron has offered grief counseling to the workers.

"One of our maintenance guys was in here just the other day," said employee John McNaughton. "He witnessed one and he says he'll never get it out of his head."


Wednesday's SMART Board meeting was packed as directors, employees and the public searched for ways to make it stop. Some of the tragedies happened through inattention and the agency has installed so-called "Z-gates" that stand in the way of pedestrians, causing them to look up as they get to the track.

But General Manager Farhad Mansourian made it clear that the issue was bigger than just installing safety equipment.

"This is not a train crisis," he told the Board. "This is a mental health and a public health crisis that we're dealing with."

There are homeless camps alongside the tracks and the last three deaths have been ruled as suicides. SMART wants to enlist the help of an army of public health and suicide prevention experts.

"We must come up with a strategy on suicide, impulsiveness and homeless issues," Mansourian said. "These are not just a SMART issue. We must connect the dots and we must decide what to do as a community."

Next week, SMART will host a summit with public health and homelessness experts from across the county. And in August, they plan a massive campaign to educate the public about mental health and suicide prevention services.

But if the only way to keep people off the tracks is to solve homelessness and mental illness, Chevron worker McNaughton says this may be a problem that is too big for a transit agency to solve.

"Good luck to 'em," he said. "I don't know what they're going to do…I really don't."

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