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Expansion eludes road builders

Paul Snyder
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Road contractors in Wisconsin are discovering the federal stimulus package is more like a federal status quo package.

“It’s nice because we’ve been able to avoid layoffs,” said Rick Forsythe, division manager for Ashland-based Northwoods Paving Co. “But we’ve just tried to skate by with what we have. We haven’t been able to hire new workers.”

At the moment, Forsythe can speak from a position few other road builders in the state can. Of the seven completed road projects in the state financed through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act so far, Northwoods’ work repaving Highway 2 between Odanah and Saxon averaged the highest number of full-time jobs at 13.6, according to documents filed by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in the state’s federal stimulus spending report.

According to the report (PDF), which was made public this week, the seven completed projects, in total, filled 43.8 full-time jobs. The report also showed that 78 projects have not started, 86 are less than halfway complete and 50 are more than halfway complete.

WisDOT spokeswoman Peg Schmitt said several projects have not started because design work needed to be completed, but Wisconsin workers can expect more projects in 2010.

WisDOT documents show another 187 local projects scheduled for 2010 that will receive federal stimulus help.

It’s a healthy amount of work for road builders, said Kevin Traas, director of transportation policy and finance for the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association. But until Congress reauthorizes a federal transportation spending plan, companies might be stuck maintaining the number of employees rather than expanding.

“It shouldn’t be that way,” Traas said. “Certainly, growth and expansion should be a goal. But the national unemployment figures for construction are at 20 percent, which is scary.

“What we’re hearing is that the stimulus money so far has let builders avoid a steep cliff in terms of employment.”

Even if there is more work for road builders in 2010, few people are confident enough to predict those projects will trigger growth in the industry.

Bill Zimmer, WisDOT’s local program project manager in the state’s northwest region, said most of the stimulus-related projects on tap for the area next year will be between $300,000 and $400,000.

“The combined total of that is maybe a couple weeks of work,” he said. “It’s quite possible that could mean new employees, but I think, for the most part, it’s going to be another year of job retention for companies up here.”

With a staff of 48 people at Northwoods, Forsythe said, he will be happy to survive another year without layoffs. But he said that’s not what contractors were told when the federal package first arrived with the promise of stimulus work and spin-off projects rippling through the industry.

The Highway 2 repaving job, Forsythe said, resulted in Northwoods winning two private driveway repaving projects that averaged at most $3,000 and provided only a fraction of a day’s work.

The long-term benefits of the stimulus work, he said, seem to be a long time coming.

“I had an employee ask me this morning about how next year looks, and I’m not sure,” Forsythe said Wednesday. “I’m not going to predict anything big.”

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