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Goss: $1.25 billion in transportation spending having positive ripple effect

By Brian Clark
For WisBusiness.com

All those orange barrels may be irritating to motorists, but they're good news for the state's transportation industry.

In particular, members of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders’ Association are benefiting from millions dollars in federal stimulus money being pumped into the state.

The executive director of the association -- also a former state Department of Transportation official -- says the stimulus money is helping to put thousands of people to work. All in all, it should be a healthy construction season for the transportation infrastructure community.

The executive director, Pat Goss, also predicts a ripple effect from the estimated $1.25 billion in transportation funding -- $350 million in federal dollars on top of nearly $900 million from state taxpayers.

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“Due to the stimulus money, plus the program that was already in place, you’re seeing thousands of people being put back to work that arguably would not have been working this year,” says Pat Goss, executive director of the WTBA since January 2007.

“As a result, they have good, family supporting jobs in terms of pay and benefits,” he says, noting that most workers are union members whose pay is 5 to 10 percent higher than the average state wage.

“And that has the benefit of not only getting them back to work, but gives them the resources to invest in their communities, pay taxes,” adds Goss, who was deputy secretary at the state Department of Transportation in 2002. He also worked for the Wisconsin Asphalt Pavement Association for four years.

“You’ll see a ripple that’s going to kick into full effect in the next month or so here in Wisconsin and across the country as a whole,” says Goss.

He says the stimulus money means that workers will be able to get the hours they need to qualify for health insurance and other benefits when they are laid off this winter, he says.

“Without the stimulus, a lot of these folks wouldn’t have gotten those hours in this year and it would have been a further draw on state benefits to ensure that these people and their families had health insurance,” he says.

Goss says the transportation infrastructure work is being done all over the state, with some rural bridges being rebuilt.

“All parts of the state are seeing investment and hopefully the long-term benefits of that investment in terms of helping move their economies forward,” he says.

“You’ve also got major work going on now on Highway 41 in the Fox River Valley and I-94 north-south from Illinois to the Mitchell Interchange in southeastern Wisconsin.''

Even without the federal stimulus money, Goss says Wisconsin would have been spending a record amount on its roads.

“State funding is a record level,” Goss says.

But he cautioned that since 2002, construction inflation is up 69 percent.

“The cost of these projects has significantly increased… but increases in revenues have not kept up by 69 percent, so your dollars today are buying a lot less than they bought in 2002.''

Goss says he hopes that in 2010, instead of stimulus packages, Congress will renew its six-year transportation infrastructure plan after it expires in September 30 and increase funding.

“Our hope is that we don’t do these one-time fix-its,” he says.

“As great as the stimulus was this time – and there certainly are extraordinary circumstances that dictated the need to do something like that – we are hoping that Congress and the president come to an agreement on this next six years of how we invest in transportation.

“But more importantly, how we are going to pay for it?”

Goss says the WTBA supports high-speed rail and regional transit authorities. He believes the first high-speed rail built in Wisconsin will run from Milwaukee to Madison within five years and then on to Minneapolis.

“Our group has been out front whether you are talking transit funding, commuter rail or high-speed rail,” he says.

“We’ve supported the initiative in the last several budgets to include bonding with GPR (taxpayer-financed) debt service to support these types of investments.

“But the magic question at the end of the day is the operations of the system and how is that paid for,” he says. “We certainly will be involved in that discussion and that debate.

On another subject, Goss downplayed recent news stories about lax inspection of concrete depth in state road projects.

“This was a 4-year old story about a company (Strue Construction) that is no longer in business,” he says.

While Goss says the DOT investigation showed some areas of concern, “which they have addressed, the audit showed my members are building what they are being asked to build.''

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