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Builders, researchers dispute road spending

By Sean Ryan

A national research group is accusing construction lobbyists of influencing politicians to funnel money away from maintenance projects.

But construction advocates say they are pushing as hard as anyone to get more money for bridge and street repair work.

“I don’t know that it’s healthy to try to create villains,” said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin Inc.

Representatives from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and its Wisconsin affiliate, WisPIRG, on Thursday morning argued campaign contributions from construction companies and associations are encouraging elected officials to spend money on projects that add lanes to highways or create new roads rather than on infrastructure maintenance.

According to the research group’s “Greasing the Wheels” study, construction groups gave $80.4 million to candidates for national offices and $53.5 million to candidates for state offices nationwide in 2008. According to the study, Wisconsin contractors and construction organizations contributed $858,100 to federal campaigns.

According to the report, maintenance projects represented only 10 percent of the 74 bridge projects for which Congress set aside money in 2008. John Krieger, U.S. PIRG staff attorney and transportation advocate, said the numbers demonstrate the influence the construction industry holds over politicians.

“Unless we change the way to finance bridge repair,” he said, “we remain doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.”

WisPIRG and U.S. PIRG representatives said the study justifies proposed legislation that would dedicate more public money to candidates if they refuse large donations from political organizations.

The U.S. PIRG report cites an American Society of Civil Engineers’ study from March that described the nation’s infrastructure as aging and in bad shape.

Andrew Herrmann, chairman of the work group that created the ASCE study, said he has testified to Congress to ask for more maintenance money.

He said maintenance work sometimes takes a back seat to new projects because maintenance is easier to defer.

“It’s always more exciting and more press to cut the ribbon on a new bridge,” Herrmann said.

Thompson said the U.S. PIRG report is hard to take seriously because it only considers projects for which money has been set aside, as opposed to overall transportation spending. Wisconsin’s 2009 to 2011 transportation budget has $1.9 billion for road maintenance and rehabilitation projects but only $720 million for major highway projects, he said.

“A lot of the same groups that may have given campaign contributions are trying to repair bridges,” Thompson said. “The work is not there.”

The report was only created for educational purposes, said Johanna Lathrop, WisPIRG advocate. She said readers can interpret the data however they please.

“We are positing, I guess, is the best way to put it,” she said.

Thompson said it is unfortunate if the “Greasing the Wheels” report creates animosity between contractor associations and research groups because both have the same basic goal. He said the groups are better off partnering to get more money for maintenance.

“I sure hope so,” he said of the prospect of a partnership. “I think that’s the way things are going to have to be.”

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