Sunday's front-page story "Economic boon or boondoggle?" offered a maddening account of how $54 million in federal stimulus money ended up going to build a bridge supporting the Napa Valley Wine Train.
The project, which is on a GOP list of the nation's 100 most wasteful stimulus projects, has so far created about 12 new jobs.
It's fair to say that this didn't deserve to be one of the 10 biggest stimulus projects in California last year. But let's be clear. The boondoggle is not in the project itself. Despite all the misdirected attention on the Wine Train, the bridge construction is part of a long-needed flood control project on the Napa River.
This project is anything but a boondoggle. It's been discussed for more than 20 years and is as shovel-ready and locally supported as they come. Local voters have agreed to tax themselves to help fund part of the project.
The boondoggle here is how the money made its way from Washington to the Napa Valley via an Alaska-based corporation that was able to secure a no-bid contract.
As noted in the story from California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, the no-bid $54 million federal contract went to Suulutaaq Inc., which has special access to such federal funding. Why? Because it's founded by Alaska Natives, and under measures crafted by former Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Natives have special access. Yes, that would be the same Ted Stevens of "Bridge to Nowhere" fame whose career ended in shambles after he was indicted for failing to report gifts from corporations and others.
Because there is no cap on the size of contracts Alaska Natives can obtain, its involvement in federal projects has swollen to absurd levels. According to California Watch reporters, the corporations' share of federal contracts has grown from $508 million in 2000 to $5.2 billion in 2008.
Making matters more dubious, the CEO of this unique construction company is Samuel Boyle, the former head of a sailing-related dot-com that went into bankruptcy in 2004 leaving behind a number of disgruntled investors. Boyle reportedly has no construction experience.
Fortunately, Suulutaaq has contracted with a respected engineering firm to do the Napa work. According to the story, federal records show that Suulutaaq is paying the contractor $28 million — and keeping $20.4 million or 38 percent of the total contract.
The biggest waste in all of this is that the people of Napa need to depend on an Alaska-based corporation with special access to federal taxpayer money to get help paying for a long-needed flood control project. And for every $10 that was appropriated for the project, $4 will stay in Alaska with a company that now refuses to be talk. California Watch reporters said the company declined to answer any questions about the project and its funding.
Does this corporation enjoy special no-accountability status in addition to getting preferential treatment on federal contracts? It would seem so.
Enough with the complaints about the Wine Train. It's this Alaska gravy train that needs to be stopped.