January 28th, 2010
09:49 PM ET

Video: Napa Wine Train in middle of stimulus fight

Randi Kaye | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

It is the quintessential Napa Valley experience.

Passengers aboard sleek antique rail cars pay more than $100 for a four-course meal, not including the wine. A recent lunch aboard the train included steak, lobster cakes and local greens.

During their three-hour journey winding through Napa Valley, passengers can choose from more than 100 wines to complement their meal.

The Napa Valley Wine Train has been shuttling passengers through one of the country's most famous valleys for more than two decades, but now it's under fire because of Republican Sens. Tom Coburn and John McCain. They ranked the wine train as No. 11 on their list of the 100 most "wasteful" and "silly" stimulus projects, leading some to call it the Stimulus Waste Express.

When Melodie Hilton, who handles public relations for the wine train, learned about that nickname, she was less than pleased. Hilton said the report temporarily affected business. She said through a smile, "it's never fun to wake up and find that you're an object of national scorn."

But CNN found that scorn undeserved. In fact, CNN confirmed that not a single stimulus dollar is being spent on the wine train itself. The stimulus money is really being used for a massive flood-control project for the valley. The train's tracks happen to be in the way, so they have to be moved. It is a simple fix, but it's not cheap.

To make it happen, $54 million is being used to build a flood wall at the wine train depot, elevate the tracks and move them 33 feet, and raise four bridges.

How did the wine train end up on the list of wasteful projects? "The person who did the research for the senators didn't do a thorough job," Hilton said, "and I think if they did a thorough job, we wouldn't have been on the list at all."

Barry Martin is the spokesman for the Napa River Flood Control Project. He called the senators' report "deliberate deception" and a way to score "political points."

Martin says this is not a "frivolous project" or a waste of stimulus dollars.

"This is perfectly fitting into what stimulus is intended to do. People are on the job working today who might not be otherwise," Martin said.

Coburn's spokesman said the whole project is a "misplaced priority." He also criticized it for being a "no-bid" project, meaning only one contractor was considered.

Just how many people are employed on the project is ambiguous. Martin says that at least 600 jobs have been created for the whole thing. And those people, he says, will stay on the job two to three years.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the flood control initiative, said that every $1 million spent creates about 20 jobs but said it didn't have an exact figure of jobs for the project.

And the contractor, Suulutaaq, had reported just 12 jobs created to the White House. A spokeswoman said the company expects that 200 people will be employed over the life of the project.

Regardless, the goal is to prevent Napa from flooding every few years, as it does now. In 1986, a flood cost the city $100 million. In 2005, flood damage hit $115 million.

Hilton, who has lived through the floods in Napa Valley and recalls neighborhoods under feet of water, wrote a letter to McCain: "Since you have thrown down the gauntlet, and made accusations, I would like to demand satisfaction! ... Talk to the officials behind this project; learn what is really going on. It is your right and your responsibility."

"We all have the same goal," she later said. "Nobody appreciates waste. If he came out and explored this, I don't think this would have been on the list."

Filed under: John McCain • Randi Kaye • Stimulus
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. wayne goodin

    we desperately need infrastructure on bridges, railroad tracks, miles & miles of sewer systems some of which are over a hundred years and more old. what are wqe waiting for?

    January 29, 2010 at 5:56 am |
  2. Bill

    Another example of how the Republins lie! Good thing that McCain was not elected President.

    January 29, 2010 at 3:28 am |
  3. Gary Lehman

    So, 54 million to create 200 jobs = $270,000 per job for temporary jobs. Yes, I consider that a huge waste of my tax dollars.

    January 29, 2010 at 2:54 am |
  4. Chris Fracker

    I am from the midwest and am working here in the Napa Valley, I think $54 million for 200 jobs ($90k) a year for two years is ridiculus! send that money to the middle of the country and put 600 people to work for 2 years. A lot more would be accomplished.

    Buckeye Fan

    January 29, 2010 at 12:01 am |
  5. Annie

    Wrong. This is frivolity. Yes, protect Napa from flooding, but why save the Wine Train? I live in the area and know that it is a luxury few can afford in the area, except those with money. Have you people been to California lately? 200 jobs does not make the economy grow.

    January 28, 2010 at 10:52 pm |
  6. Annie Kate

    Its too bad McCain and Coburn aren't scorned for giving half truths in their information (and half truth is being generous). Its really tiresome that members of congress continue to snipe at each other instead of working together to solve problems.

    January 28, 2010 at 10:38 pm |