Federal and state officials have amped up the pressure on the city of Dixon this month, demanding more explanations about the city’s use of its downtown train “depot” – a facility built a decade ago with federal transportation funds that has yet to have a passenger train land at its front door.
Federal Highway Administration officials confirmed last week that they are participating with the state Department of Transportation in an inquiry into whether the city violated federal regulations by turning the building over to the local Chamber of Commerce for $1 a month rent.
The federal government granted Dixon $875,000 in “congestion mitigation” funds in 2005 to help build the $1.3 million station with the understanding that the city would use the building for a variety of transportation purposes, including as a bus stop, until it could win approval from the Capitol Corridor intercity passenger train system for a train stop.
“In partnership with Caltrans, the FHWA is working to determine whether the ... grant received by the City of Dixon for the Dixon Transit Center has satisfied federal requirements,” federal highways spokesman Doug Hecox said in an email to The Bee.
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The inquiry is focused at the moment on the city’s $1 monthly rental arrangement with the chamber. In a March 20 letter to Dixon, Caltrans questioned the appropriateness of that deal, and asked Dixon officials to get a licensed appraiser to determine the fair market rent for the building. The letter cites a federal code that indicates agencies using federal funds for facilities must charge market rates, and that the federal share of that income should be used for transportation-related purposes.
In a separate letter, Caltrans also asked the city to explain how the building’s current use “align(s) with the intended transportation purpose of its construction.”
The building has been a lightning rod for debate in Dixon, and has been challenged by the Dixon chapter of the Solano County Taxpayers Association as a misuse of taxpayer funds.
When Dixon officials won grants to build the trackside structure, they said they felt they needed to have the building in place to strengthen their pitch to local rail officials for a future Capitol Corridor train stop. Meantime, they said, they likely would use the building for transit-related purposes, including the possibility of moving city transportation workers into the building, using the site as a regional bus stop, installing an electric car charging station, and disseminating transit brochures and other transportation information to the public.
It was initially used as a bus stop and had an electric charging station, but no longer. The building has a rack inside that includes some transit brochures.
When asked, Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco declined to say whether the state and federal government are considering taking the $875,000 back. He acknowledged that could be an option, but said in an email, “We do not want to speculate at a final decision until the city has provided all of our requested information.”
“Ultimately, it is important that Dixon uses the facility for transportation purposes that benefit the community and satisfies federal funding requirements,” he said.
Dixon City Public Works Administrator Janet Koster said the city is cooperating with Caltrans and federal highway officials, and intends to get them the information they have requested.
“We provided them some information, and they asked for some additional information,” she said. “We are still working through it.”
She said the city, population 18,350, continues its efforts to turn the building into a train station, but she and other city officials have acknowledged that effort has proven to be difficult and is likely years away.
Dixon Chamber of Commerce President Kevin Johnson said he is not familiar with the details of the controversy, but said the chamber treats the building like a visitor information center, with doors open to the public and a person on-site daily.
“We love the location,” Johnson said. “We are going to work with the city no matter what. I would love for it to be a train station some day.”
Currently, Capitol Corridor intercity passenger train service and Amtrak passenger trains run through town. Neither agency has plans at the moment to stop in Dixon, although Capitol Corridor officials say the city remains a potential stop.
Dixon’s efforts to land a train stop go back 20 years, since a Solano Transportation Authority report in the mid-1990s suggested Dixon is a potential future stop site.
After Dixon won a grant to build the station building, however, Union Pacific, the owner of the tracks, surprised Dixon officials, telling them a few years ago it won’t support a stop unless the city eliminates the at-grade rail crossing at West A Street near the station. UP wants the city to tunnel under the street so cars no longer cross paths with trains. The rail line is UP’s main freight conduit between the Port of Oakland and the commercial markets in Northern California and the western United States.
The West A Street tunnel project could cost another $20 million. Dixon officials said it likely will take considerable housing growth in town over many years to raise fees to help pay for the undercrossing.
A new train station between Fairfield and Vacaville is under construction about 15 miles west of Dixon. It is expected to open in two years. Yolo County has an existing passenger train station in the city of Davis, 10 miles east.
The Solano Transportation Authority is expected to offer more details about the prospects and timing of a Dixon train station in early April when it publishes an update of rail needs in Solano County.
“There is nothing ... at this point that closes the door on Dixon,” the STA’s Bob Macauley said. “We will have to see how Solano will absorb the ridership of the Fairfield station.”
Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.