State officials have launched a review into whether the city of Dixon has violated transportation grant fund requirements by leasing its downtown “train depot” building to the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
The city built the small track-side structure eight years ago as a future rail stop for passenger trains, financing the $1.3 million project with local, state and federal transportation and air-quality improvement grants. But the building has never been used as a train depot. Instead, the city has turned the building over to the local chamber as an office and visitor center.
The arrangement, highlighted in a Sacramento Bee article in November, has drawn complaints from some city residents, who say it amounts to a misuse of government funds. Members of taxpayer groups filed complaints with state officials.
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In a letter a few weeks ago to Dixon city leaders, the state Department of Transportation asked the city to provide information to the state about how the building is being used, including the terms of the financial agreement with the chamber. The city tapped $875,000 in federal funds, administered by Caltrans, to help build the station.
“Because of the use of federal funds to help develop and construct this center, its use and funding eligibility have fallen under scrutiny,” Caltrans officials said in the letter. “Questions have been raised about how the transit center is currently being used and what the plans are for the future of the multi-modal station/transit center going forward.”
In initial grant application documents filed in 2004, Dixon city officials stated the building “will be used for transit operations and commuter information in the short term. In the long term, it will also serve as a passenger rail station.”
However, officials with the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, which runs passengers trains between Sacramento and the Bay Area, said they do not have any firm plans to stop trains in Dixon. The Capitol Corridor agency has approved a new station stop nearby between Vacaville and Fairfield, which is under construction this year, and could consider Dixon in the future. But train officials said they do not like to approve too many train stops because each one slows the trains down.
Solano County transportation officials say they are conducting a county “rail needs” study, which will determine Dixon’s status as a potential future rail stop. That analysis should be done in late February.
Dixon officials could not be reached Tuesday for comment. Dixon city officials previously told The Sacramento Bee they have felt they needed to invest upfront in rail facilities, including the depot and a new passageway under the tracks, in order to put the city in a better position to be approved eventually as a train stop.
“If you just live for today, and not build for future needs, the town will die,” Mayor Jack Batchelor said in November. “I think the money is well spent.”
The city has been leasing the building to the chamber for $12 a year for the past several years. The chamber is responsible for maintenance and other costs at the site. It also provides some brochures about local transportation options. The site had previously been a regional bus service stop, but regional buses no longer stop there.
A Caltrans spokesman said the state agency has asked the city questions about its use of the building and is expecting a response from the city in February.
Another agency that helped finance the project is the Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District. Mat Ehrhardt, air-quality district head, told The Bee in November he’s not concerned that the trains have not yet arrived at the station.
“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.”
Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.