By Sean Ryan
The federal stimulus package continues to discourage and underwhelm Wisconsin engineers and builders.
“The stimulus program is not stimulating the building industry,” said Mike Campbell, chief operating officer of Ruekert & Mielke Inc., Waukesha, “I think it is stimulating or keeping jobs for education and the public sector.”
More than $1 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act went to Wisconsin education programs, teaching positions and new equipment, while $399 million went to such infrastructure work as highway, sewer and water projects, according to state figures.
Meanwhile, more than 14 percent of Wisconsin’s consulting engineering work force has been laid off in the past year, according to the American Council of Engineering Companies of Wisconsin.
The Associated General Contractors of America on Monday reported the drop in spending on private projects outweighs the increases in spending on public projects.
The association counted a $17 billion nationwide increase in public construction spending from September 2008 to September 2009 compared to the same period the previous year.
But private construction spending dropped by $160 billion in the same period.
New regulations, such as Buy American requirements, are stunting the stimulus package, said AGC spokesman Brian Turmail. Meanwhile, there is no evidence builders will have more opportunities in 2010, he said.
“Has it met its full potential?” Turmail said. “Our opinion is no, and largely because it has moved more slowly than we would have liked, especially in the building side, the vertical construction.”
Wisconsin is funneling stimulus money toward work on buildings. The state received $141.5 million for single-family home and apartment weatherization projects that improve energy efficiency. Last week, the state awarded $102 million in tax credits and grants for affordable-housing projects.
The federal stimulus is slowing the bleeding, said Mike Fabishak, chief executive officer of the AGC of Greater Milwaukee. But the question is: How much good has it done?
“Is it having enough effect that is benefiting the amount of people that I think they wanted it to?” Fabishak said. “And I think my response to that is: probably not.”
The stimulus legislation set tight deadlines to force immediate results, Campbell said, but those time limits stunted the scale of projects. Municipalities, rather than signing off on major reconstruction projects, offered only small-scale street resurfacing jobs, the designs for which were done fast enough to meet stimulus money deadlines, he said.
“You can create immediate results with short-term fixes,” Campbell said. “But the big projects, the ones that really get at our infrastructure needs, are longer term-type planning projects.”
Whether the federal stimulus lived up to expectations that it would lead to more municipal projects depends on how much was expected, said Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. Those who got money say it worked; those who didn’t are disappointed, he said.
For example, there is enough stimulus money to pay for about 100 new fire stations in the U.S. There are 127 pending applications from Wisconsin, Thompson said.
“That’s a recipe for disappointment,” he said.
Builders want more. The national AGC is lobbying federal lawmakers for an increase in private construction spending, and the Association of Equipment Manufacturers is demanding a highway reauthorization package to put builders to work so they buy more heavy equipment.
Meanwhile, Campbell at Ruekert & Mielke keeps applying for state and federal money to get projects off the ground.
“We go after grants for our local municipalities when we find them,” he said. “But, unless another wave of stimulus money comes around, I don’t see a big stimulus to the local economy.”
Related story: Feds hand Wisconsin $15 million for energy efficiency