Dixon’s downtown depot: Will the train ever stop here?

Nate Inman with RGW Construction walks the B Street undercrossing at the downtown Dixon train depot, which serves as a Dixon Chamber of Commerce office. The city built the depot in 2006 with transportation grant funds, but trains don’t stop there yet, and it could take many more years and tens of millions of dollars to get the building to qualify as a rail passenger stop for Capitol Corridor trains.
Nate Inman with RGW Construction walks the B Street undercrossing at the downtown Dixon train depot, which serves as a Dixon Chamber of Commerce office. The city built the depot in 2006 with transportation grant funds, but trains don’t stop there yet, and it could take many more years and tens of millions of dollars to get the building to qualify as a rail passenger stop for Capitol Corridor trains.

City leaders call it a key civic asset. Opponents dismiss it as the train station to nowhere.

Built in the heart of downtown and opened with fanfare eight years ago, the little yellow farmhouse-style depot has been assigned a big task – to help the Solano County town pull itself out of an ugly recession and to link its fortunes more closely with the bustling economies in Sacramento and the Bay Area.

The awkward reality: Passenger trains don’t stop here. They haven’t for a half-century. And Northern California passenger rail officials say they have no definite plans, at least for now, to add Dixon to their rail network, even though Capitol Corridor and Amtrak passengers trains roar past the site numerous times a day.

The station today is only nominally used. The local Chamber of Commerce maintains an office and holds meetings there. Chamber members’ business cards sit on a shelf in the main room, near some brochures of Solano County bus routes. A stuffed animal display sits in one corner. The local swim team has placed a few of its trophies on a case. The parking lot is often empty.

The situation is cause for consternation in Dixon and has led to some allegations in town of wasteful and even fraudulent use of taxpayer funds. A former councilman describes the city’s train efforts as delusional, and argues few commuters would use it even if a train did show up.

“It is a hell of a lot cheaper to buy them all Priuses,” Michael Ceremello Jr. said.

Proponents, led by the mayor, counter that Dixon can’t afford to wait for economic opportunities to be handed to it. Employing a “build it and they will come” strategy, the city is methodically making its case to Solano County and Capitol Corridor train officials for a rail stop.

So far, the city has spent $1.3 million on the station building and $7 million on a just-finished pedestrian undercrossing to improve rail-crossing safety downtown. The city paid those bills mainly by cobbling together transportation grants from local, state and federal agencies.

“If you just live for today, and not build for future needs, the town will die,” Mayor Jack Batchelor said last week. “I think the money is well spent.”

But bigger costs lie ahead. Union Pacific, owner of the tracks, surprised Dixon officials a few years ago, telling them 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 Public Works Administrator Janet Koster, who has worked on the project since the 1990s, said the city may take years before coming up with the money. “I didn’t know the rules would change so much, particularly dealing with UP,” she said. “You go down a path, and all of sudden you find out that is not our path anymore because the rules changed.”

UP spokesman Jeff DeGraff declined to talk specifically about Dixon, but said in an email: “Union Pacific looks to increase safety for the public and our trains at all times. At-grade crossings are the least desirable type of crossing. In order to ensure a safer situation, we could require a crossing be changed to a grade-separated crossing or be eliminated altogether.”

Another turn of events could affect Dixon’s rail efforts for better or worse. The Solano Transportation Authority has begun updating a countywide rail facilities plan, analyzing whether Dixon, population 18,350, has the commuter base and potential population growth to be a viable passenger train stop soon. The conclusions are expected to be made public in the next two months.

“We want to have an effective train system through Solano County,” STA planning chief Bob Macauley said. “If a new station would increase the effectiveness, I would expect our board would support it. The real question we have is whether there will be the ridership for it.”

Notably, Dixon officials launched their station project only after being encouraged by a similar, positive STA analysis in the mid-1990s.

Even if the new STA report concludes Dixon has enough riders to support a train stop, the ultimate decision rests with the Capitol Corridor passenger rail joint-powers group, made up of representatives from as far away as San Jose and Auburn. Capitol Corridor officials say they have long considered Dixon as a possible future stop. David Kutrosky, head of the rail agency, declined to assess Dixon’s chances for a rail stop in the near term, saying his agency wants to see what the STA analysis shows first.

The Capitol Corridor group already has approved a new station stop nearby between the larger cities of Fairfield and Vacaville. Train officials say they don’t like to approve too many stops because each one adds three to five minutes of travel time for Capitol Corridor trains. Dixon officials say the city is willing to accept only a few trains a day. Other future “express” trains could skip Dixon.

In contrast to Dixon, leaders in Fairfield and Vacaville waited until they got 2005 Capitol Corridor board approval for a stop before they solicited station financing grants. Those cities will begin construction next spring – with a $78 million budget that includes a major overpass to eliminate an at-grade rail crossing – and hope to have trains pulling in by 2016. Also, unlike Dixon, those cities will build an outdoor covered passenger platform and ticketing area first, then will decide if they have enough money to construct a station building, which likely would be designed more to house food and retail outlets.

Dixon, once known as “The Dairy City” and home to the famous but now closed Milk Farm restaurant, has a history of misses on big projects that leaders hoped would boost their town economically.

A century ago, the city vied to be a major state agricultural and academic research site, but lost to a neighbor city. What could have been UC Dixon is, instead, UC Davis.

More recently, the city made headlines with plans for a major horse-racing track next to Interstate 80. That project fell by the wayside, as did a more notorious plan: Dixon leaders got a black eye by negotiating with an entrepreneur to build a world-class film industry studio. The out-of-towner peddling that project, Carissa Carpenter, now faces 32 federal counts, including charges that she defrauded other investors of $5 million.

Proponents point out that the train-stop project is dissimilar to those efforts. It represents a modest, homegrown economic development effort to help it stir from recessionary doldrums.

The downtown near the depot is dotted with empty lots. Industrial areas nearby are sparse. A major employer, Kragen Auto Parts, moved its distribution center a few years ago to Stockton. The city just went six years without a single new subdivision house being built. A rail stop, officials say, would create a spot for activity downtown, and could help attract businesses and educated workers.

Passenger rail has been gaining popularity as an environmentally sustainable alternative to adding more lanes on congested Interstate 80. In Dixon, however, the rail project has drawn opposition from some residents who say the city is sliding down a slippery slope without a solid payoff.

A local tax-watchdog group filed a complaint with the state Department of Transportation, alleging Dixon misused public funds by obtaining transportation grants for a building that it has basically handed over to the Chamber of Commerce. Another resident recently sent a letter to the Solano County grand jury urging it to look into whether the city broke any laws in financing the building and undercrossing.

A state Transportation Department spokesman last week said he was looking into a Bee request to determine whether the state came to any conclusion on the Dixon matter. Dixon city officials said Caltrans met with them a few years ago but has not contacted the city since. Grand jury representatives could not be reached last week.

The Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District is among the agencies that provided funds for the Dixon station project. Mat Ehrhardt, air-quality district head, said his agency knew from the start that the Dixon project was not a slam-dunk. He said he’s not concerned that it has not yet come to fruition.

“We fund some projects that are a little speculative,” he said. “Our grants are about innovation and pushing boundaries. Dixon is attempting to get a train station; they’ve made a good-faith effort from our grant. That is what we look at.”

Talking about the project last week, Dixon’s Mayor Batchelor acknowledged the city faces a complex row of hurdles ahead that will take years to clear. But, he said, he believes the city will get a train stop. “Whether it will be completed in my term as mayor remains to be seen. I will make it one of my goals.”

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.