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Stimulus could make earth move

Sean Ryan

Grading contractors are concerned using stimulus money to bid Wisconsin Department of Transportation jobs early will dry up potential state work down the road.

The state used stimulus money to advance the schedules for nine projects that include grading work.

Jack Arseneau, executive director of the Wisconsin Earth Movers Association Inc., said earthmovers are worried there could be a lack of grading work in 2010 because many of the projects scheduled for next year will be bid over the next three months. Without the promise of more projects to be bid in 2010, earthmovers are unsure whether they should hire more people or buy new equipment, he said.

“Otherwise you are gearing up to do a lot of work now and then have nothing to do (later),” Arseneau said. “Our projects are harder to design with the rights of way and environmental statements than, say, resurfacing.”

Jim Hoffman, president of Hoffman Construction Co., Black River Falls, said the stimulus projects with grading work were already scheduled to be bid between July 1 and June of 2010 using state money, so bidding them as stimulus construction doesn’t actually create more work for earth movers.

Since the nine stimulus projects require a total of 2.7 million cubic yards of earth to be moved, WisDOT should prepare projects with the same amount of work to be bid by the December deadline for stimulus projects, Hoffman said, as opposed to projects that only requiring resurfacing.

If WisDOT does plan for more project that require earthmoving, Hoffman said, “we’d be back to our 2006 volume,” referring to the year the company employed 440 workers, compared to the 120 it employs today.
“2006 was kind of a high-water mark for us,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman caught the attention of state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, when he made his argument before the state’s Joint Finance Committee last month. Vinehout said she is trying to organize state senators to take a more active role in how WisDOT decides to spend stimulus money.

“Right now, there are a lot of open questions about how the stimulus is used,” she said.

Vinehout said the amount of new earthmoving work being created is one topic she’ll dig into, along with getting a clear answer on how much flexibility the state has under federal stimulus rules.

Since federal rules prohibit the money going toward municipal road projects, she said she wants to consider giving local projects the money the state saves by using stimulus money to pay for projects.

“It’s an open question,” she said. “We haven’t figured out all of the angles.”

What’s more, Hoffman and Vinehout said Wisconsin should consider a rating system the Minnesota Department of Transportation created to choose stimulus projects.

Minnesota selected projects based on five criteria, among which are balancing the different types of work, such as earth moving or paving, and distributing projects throughout the state.

Hoffman said he won’t be able to increase his work force unless the state prepares additional projects that involve earthmoving.

He created two or three new jobs by hiring additional estimators because there are two bid lettings per month in April, May and June, instead of one. But the contracts came with a caveat, he said: The new estimators will be gone by the end of the year if more work doesn’t materialize.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation selects stimulus projects using these criteria:

  • Project readiness: Projects must be bid quickly.
  • Consistency with performance based plans/needs: Projects must be necessary to improve the highway system.
  • Statewide coverage: Projects should be distributed around the state.
  • Balanced program: Construction should have a mix of the various types of work in road construction.
  • Project advancement: Project timelines must be advanced because of their inclusion in the stimulus program.

Source: Minnesota Department of Transportation

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