Money & Politics Blog: Road builders brew up public support

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

If you listen to Milwaukee Brewers’ games on the radio, chances are you’ve heard it.

Amid the endless -- and, by about game two of the 162-game season, tedious -- commercials for Miller Lite and the Wisconsin Lottery are a pair of classy ads from the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, a state lobby group.

One of the ads assures listeners that those orange barrels “don’t just signal a construction zone. They are a sign of a brighter economic future.”

The ad says road building creates “family-supporting jobs,” helps Wisconsin businesses remain competitive and strengthens communities. It cites studies showing that every dollar spent on transportation improvements yields $3 in overall economic growth.

Road builders have long been among the state’s most powerful special interests. In just the first six months of this year, the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association reported spending $189,630 lobbying on dozens of bills and issue areas.

But, as these ads attest, the group is also willing to take its case for more and better roads directly to the people of Wisconsin.

Kevin Traas, the association’s director of transportation policy and finance, says the ads have been running on Brewers’ games since last season. For less than $80,000 a year, the group gets an on-air mention and one 30-second ad during each game, plus “a lot of freebies” when the games have breaks for pitching changes and such.

The association also runs radio ads during University of Wisconsin Badgers football games.

Traas says he writes the ads himself, drawing from input the association received from focus groups a few years back. They showed that “when people talk about transportation, it’s jobs and safety that resonate.” (The second ad that runs during Brewers games says road builders “create safer roads and bridges that protect your family and grow the state’s economy.”)

Of course, not everyone agrees the road builders are pure as the driven asphalt.

“The highway lobby or the road builders, like any special interests, use their money and power in ways that are not in the best interest of the public,” says Bruce Speight, director of Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, a statewide advocacy organization. “We continue to overbuild the highway system, as opposed to maintaining and improving existing roads.”

WISPIRG has ripped Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011-13 budget for cutting spending on local road repair and mass transit while hiking state spending on highway improvements by 13 percent, and authorizing four new multi-year highway projects of “highly questionable” merit that could end up costing between $1.2 billion and $2.1 billion.

“No one’s trying to suggest we shouldn’t invest in roads,” says Speight. “But we shouldn’t waste money on unnecessary projects.”

Traas denies that’s occurring. As he sees it, these are hardly glory days for road builders.

“I’ve heard it all: ‘Concrete over kids,’ ‘$400 million increase in highway spending,’ ” says Traas. “There’s a lot of rhetoric out there, but if you look at the bottom-line numbers, I don’t see much change.”

The governor’s budget as amended did hike spending on highway improvements by 13 percent, from $1.23 billion in 2010-11 to an average of $1.4 billion over the next two fiscal years. But Traas says the difference is less dramatic when the comparison is between the last full biennium and the current one.

His analysis shows that the state spent $2.79 billion on highway improvements in 2009-11, even after $91 million in federal stimulus aid is subtracted out. That makes the total for 2011-13 just $12.3 million more than  2009-11, an increase of less than 1 percent.

In fact, Traas is worried about the future. While President Obama’s proposed jobs bill includes hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation in Wisconsin, House Republicans have vowed to cut federal highway and bridge aid. “The whole federal picture on transportation is a train wreck,” he says. “We could get $250 million less in federal funding” than the current level of about $720 million a year.

“Most states right now are nervously watching what’s going on at the federal level,” Traas says. “There could be some unhappy states out there.”

Well, at least Milwaukee Brewers fans have reason to be optimistic.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

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