The Public Eye

The Public Eye: Repairs on Sacramento’s historic train depot prove costlier than expected

When the city of Sacramento bought the historic but dilapidated downtown train depot nearly a decade ago, officials knew they were taking on the biggest fixer-upper in town.

“A diamond in the rough,” city architect Hinda Chandler put it then.

They just didn’t know how rough. A recent $10 million seismic retrofit project to bring the 88-year-old brick building to modern standards took nearly a year longer than anticipated and cost the city $1.3 million more than planned –mainly because of repeated discoveries of hidden problems behind the building’s walls.

In all, the city and its contractor made 29 construction change orders at the Fourth and I streets site. During that two-year period, train passengers had to walk through a thick maze of construction scaffolding from one end of the depot’s main hall to the other.

Much of the extra cost was for work not directly related to earthquake shoring. Lead paint was discovered and removed from roof trusses in the attic. The city had to pay $32,000 to remove some abandoned heating and ventilation equipment. There were modifications of electrical equipment, installation of fire sprinklers, disposal of excavated dirt, and modifications to the smoke detection system. The plaster ceiling in one of the main rooms began to slip – the nails holding the lath in place had rusted –requiring workers to put up a new support structure. The city paid an extra $2,700 for “high-security” vandalism-resistant mirrors in the public restrooms.

The city and its contractor, Diede Construction of Lodi, spent months haggling over responsibility for the extra costs. Representatives on both sides say they have come to an agreement that should keep them out of court.

Reina Schwartz, director of the city Department of General Services, said the overruns were not entirely a surprise. “When you start digging into the guts of an old building, you find all sorts of things that you didn’t expect,” she said.

But she acknowledged the city could have done a better job analyzing the scope of the job beforehand. “There were opportunities we discovered for more thorough prep work and more communication among staff and the contractor,” Schwartz said.

Diede Construction President Steve Diede declined to say how much in extra costs his company had to absorb, but said it was “substantial.” He called the depot “an expensive building,” but said he understands the city’s desire to make the historic structure usable.

The city bought the depot and 24 surrounding railyard acres in 2006 for $52 million from a development firm. The brick and terra cotta structure, built in 1926, had fallen into disrepair under previous owners, the Southern Pacific and later the Union Pacific railroad companies.

The recent retrofit was one of several steps in an ambitious city plan to turn the depot, now called Sacramento Valley Station, into a modern, multi-use building. The next phase is a $34 million, two-year modernization project starting this month.

Currently, less than one-third of the 60,000-square-foot space in the building is usable. City officials plan to update the depot’s train passenger facilities, as well as add a restaurant in a large side room that has been closed to the public for years. Other closed-off areas will be turned into retail shops and business offices. A cafe will be added. Workers will install air conditioning and modern heating, fix stairs and elevators, and renovate bathrooms.

Nearly half of the $34 million for the next phase will come from a federal transportation grant, the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery discretionary grant program, a part of the federal government’s economic and jobs stimulus program. Other funds will come from Sacramento transportation sales taxes and state grants.

City officials say the infusion of public funds is warranted for a historic building that sits in a key spot downtown and will serve a major public role. About 1.5 million people are expected to come through the doors annually in the next decade. For many, the building will serve as their entry to the city from Amtrak or Capitol Corridor trains. A state high-speed rail train station may someday be built next door. A light-rail train line to the airport will stop at the depot. The building could be the halfway point between a downtown basketball arena and a Major League Soccer stadium, each walking distance away.

“We see it as a gateway, a people place,” said Chandler, one of the city officials working on the project.

The renovation that starts this month has already run into a hiccup. For a few months, it appeared the city might have to postpone work after officials realized they had not met the federal government’s complicated Buy America requirements. “There was confusion, and we got a little caught,” said Greg Taylor, one of the city’s managers on the project. “It could have slowed us another month, six weeks, but we have it straightened out.”

After a series of talks with federal transportation officials, Taylor said the city feels it can go ahead with parts of the project. Construction equipment will be moved in this week. A public groundbreaking in front of the station is set for Sept. 26.

Meanwhile, the city is working on plans to revamp the area around the depot, and looking for funding sources to pay for it. That project will focus on developing the space between the depot and the train platforms a few hundred feet away with as-yet-unspecified improvements for train, bus and light-rail passengers. The cost for that work has not been determined.