California has been hit hard during the recession, so there's no question why federal stimulus dollars are being spent there. Yet one project -- $54 million for renovations of railroad track used solely by a privately-owned "wine train" -- has some in Congress questioning how they're being spent.
"What that is, is a situation where you see the wealthy or well connected get taken care of and the community suffers," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
The project is called the Napa Valley Wine Relocation Project, and the money will be spent to build a new rail bridge, elevate and relocate a total of 3,300 feet of track and put flood walls around the main station for the Napa Valley Wine Train, an antique train that runs on 25 miles of track and features a restaurant and restored vintage train cars.
The project was cited in a report by Coburn and fellow Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona as one of the 100 most questionable stimulus projects.
The owners of the train also own the tracks, but they say they aren't getting any money.
"If that report had been thoroughly researched, we wouldn't have been on it," Napa Valley Wine Train spokeswoman Melody Hilton said. "We are not receiving the money nor are we a significant financial beneficiary of the project."
The funds were given to the Army Corps of Engineers as part of a larger flood control plan designed to protect the City of Napa from floods like the one that devastated the city in 2005.
But while the train owners aren't getting any money directly, the tracks, the station and the rail bridge are all used solely by the wine train.
Barry Martin, a spokesman for the project, said the last time the tracks were used for anything other than the Wine Train was in the 1970s.
"It would have been the 1970s when Southern Pacific owned this section of railroad," Martin said.
Hilton defended the use of the money for the flood-control project.
"It is not for the benefit or financial boon of the Napa Valley Wine Train. It is an enormously important community project and we are good community partners and a part of that," Hilton said.
"We employ from low season to high season around 100 to 140 [people], so we are one of Napa's more significant employers," she said.
Village Mayor Says He Would Put Funds to Other Use
The Army Corps of Engineers has contracted the project to Suulutaaq, a Native-American Alaskan corporation. The City of Napa estimates that approximately 200 jobs have been created by this project, which is expected to take two-and-a-half years to complete.
Del Britton, the mayor of St. Helena, the village the tracks run through, said that if the money had been awarded to the city, he would have spent it differently.
"We've got a lot of streets in the city that need to get paved. That's the first place it would go for sure," he said.
The roads will have to wait -- this batch of tax money is going to the train tracks.