A $54 million government award to relocate Napa Valley Wine Train tracks has come under fire by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., as proof that the federal stimulus package is riddled with waste.
The multi-million dollar contract rings in at no. 11 on a list of 100 projects deemed by McCain and Coburn to be “wasteful or silly.”
The Napa project is one of only three in the Bay Area criticized in the report issued this week, titled “Stimulus Checkup.”
McCain and Coburn also question the decision to spend $2.2 million in federal funds on water recycling at Sharp Park golf course in Pacifica, and a similar project at Lone Tree Golf Course in Antioch.
In total, the relocation of Wine Train tracks will cost $65 million in federal money, including the $54 million stimulus award. The funding is part of the larger $99.5 million in stimulus funds awarded to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for Napa’s flood control project.
The $65 million award will allow the Corps to build a replacement and elevate the existing rail bridge over the Napa River, and build a new bridge over the planned bypass channel that will divert water away from the Oxbow and Soscol Avenue’s Auto Row in case of a major flood. Streets in the area, as well as underground utilities, will be raised. A flood wall will be built at the Napa Wine Train station.
The goal is to prevent another major flood like the one that ripped through central Napa on New Year’s Eve 2005, causing an estimated $115 million in damage.
“In the past, floods in that area have taken human life, destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars of personal property, disturbed commerce, disrupted the lives of many, many people, and caused local governments to dip into funds,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena.
Local officials said stimulus money will allow the Corps to complete the project within the next two years, rather than the decade it might have taken without it.
“This amount essentially catches us up so we’re not going to fall any further behind,” said Barry Martin, a spokesman for the city of Napa. “That’s enormous, because every winter that we don’t have the project finished, it’s another winter of people being at risk.”
Officials have said in the past that the project is not done at the behest of or for the benefit of the Wine Train, but to maintain the only rail right of way through the valley and lift two train trestles high enough that they will not catch debris, slow fast-moving water and cause flooding downtown.
McCain and Coburn scoffed at the hefty price tag associated with the track relocation, noting mockingly in the section of the report titled “All Aboard The Wine Train!” that one of the most popular meals served on the Wine Train is the $124 Vista Dome four-course lunch with a glass of sparkling wine.
The report also questions the ability of the contractor — Alaska native corporation Suulutaaq Inc. — who McCain and Coburn claim has “little to no experience with a project of this size” but nevertheless won the contract as part of a “non-competitive bidding process.”
McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said the Suulutaaq contract “is one example of funding that flowed through a sole source contract awarded last year” despite the fact that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act requires that funds be competitively awarded.
The non-competitive bid was a result of separate federal regulations favoring Native American firms.
Including the Wine Train contract, the Stimulus Checkup report claims to have found $7.8 billion worth of stimulus contracts that were not subject to full competition.
“Moreover,” Buchanan said, “the contractor was not performing as expected and had to replace its construction managers in the spring. Yet, in May, the federal government awarded $54 million more for the project.”
Representatives for Suulutaaq could not be reached for comment. But Kristina Mullins, a deputy district engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the Corps fulfilled all of the requirements of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
“With regard to the selection of Suulutaaq as the contractor on this project, I want to ensure you that the Corps of Engineers satisfied all of our obligations under the federal acquisition regulations when we selected Suulutaaq to fulfill the work,” Mullins said. She said it would be “contrary to our mission and values as public servants, charged with the protection of the public, to select a contractor that was incapable of assisting us in our greatest mission: protecting the people of the region from another catastrophic flood event.”
McCain and Coburn make no mention of the remaining $45 million in federal stimulus funds for the flood project, which will go to Napa Creek flood defenses and the design of a flood bypass channel that will divert water from the flood-prone Oxbow area.
City and county officials familiar with the Napa flood project argue McCain and Coburn are twisting the facts to use as political fodder.
“The McCain report completely mischaracterizes what’s happening,” Martin said, stating the report makes it sound like the money is going to the Wine Train and not to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“It is just an unbelievable lack of understanding,” he said. “And if it’s not a lack of understanding, it’s a deliberate deception to try to make the stimulus look bad. … These guys are just trying to score political points by coming up with this report, and they decided to point the finger at something they don’t really know anything about.”
Thompson, a strong advocate for the flood project in Congress, agreed that the report shows “a complete lack of understanding as to the importance of this project in our community.”
“It was just a shoot-from-the-hip, reckless comment that was made in regard to a project that is going to save taxpayers a lot of money and save lives and save personal property,” Thompson said. “This was not about trying to deal with good public policy, or trying to figure out how to succeed in stopping us from going into a depression, or how to succeed in getting the economy back on its feet,” he said, “This was just politics at its worst.”
Thompson added that the project, for which local voters agreed to tax themselves a decade ago, is largely viewed as a model effort by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Martin said Napa Mayor Jill Techel plans to write to McCain and Coburn inviting them to Napa to inspect the flood project for themselves.
Melodie Hilton, director of marketing a public relations for the Napa Valley Wine Train, also fired off a letter to McCain inviting him to visit the valley.
“Since you have thrown down the gauntlet and made accusations, I would like to demand satisfaction!” Hilton wrote in a letter to McCain. “No, that does not come in the form of a retraction of apology. You are invited to come to Napa. Talk to the officials behind this project; learn what is really going on. It is your right and your responsibility.”
Hilton added that no one from McCain or Coburn’s office contacted Wine Train representatives about the report.
“It worries me that no calls were made before we were held up to the entire American public — a small business in Northern California — as an enormous source of government waste,” she said.
The report attributes information primarily to previous articles in the Register.
Other awards questioned in the Stimulus Checkup include $1.5 milllion for fossil research in Argentina, $2 million to extend the Virginia & Truckee tourist railroad in Nevada, and $5 million to provide geothermal heat at the nearly empty Oak Ridge Mall in Tennessee.