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Napa Wine Train in middle of stimulus fight

By Randi Kaye, CNN
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Wine train funded by stimulus?
  • U.S. senators claimed Wine Train received stimulus money
  • CNN found stimulus funds are not used for the train; money is for flood-control project
  • Sen. Tom Coburn's spokesman calls project "misplaced priority"
  • The latest on the controversy over the wine train on tonight's "AC 360°," 10 ET

Watch the controversy over whether the Napa wine train is a "stimulus project" on "AC360°" tonight at 10 ET.

Napa Valley, California (CNN) -- 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."

CNN's Susan Chun contributed to this report.