MADISON, Wis. (AP) — While Wisconsin was trying to balance a $3.6 billion deficit in 2011, the State Patrol spent about $54,000 on an aerial patrol program aimed at catching speeders. As some critics question the programs cost, authorities say it's a valuable tool that helps keep roads safe, especially in construction zones.
"It's one of those things that nobody would ever realize how vital the program is until it's gone," said Maj. Brian Rahn, director of the State Patrol's Bureau of Field Operations.
The Appleton Post-Crescent reported Sunday (http://post.cr/O84sHz ) that the State Patrol flew its three planes for a total of 453 hours in 2011 at a cost of $120 an hour, not including expenses for patrol cars on the ground. It's estimated about 3,000 citations were issued.
John Bowman, communications director for the National Motorists Association, questioned the program's cost and effectiveness.
"Common sense would tell you . that it has to be incredibly expensive compared to having a couple of patrol cars working the side of the road," Bowman said. "Fuel costs, the cost to operate the plane, insurance, you have to have a qualified pilot flying, none of that is cheap."
The Department of Administration has three Cessna 172 Skyhawk airplanes, based in Eau Claire, Green Bay and Madison. The State Patrol rents the aircraft for $84.50 an hour, and fuel costs make up the remainder of the expense.
During a typical aerial patrol, a trooper in a plane circles an area and notifies a trooper on the ground if someone is speeding. The officer on the ground makes the traffic stop.
Officials say the patrols are effective in construction zones.
"If you can imagine being up in an aircraft, in a construction zone, it's hard for (squad) cars to observe violations or get to them when they do see them," said Col. Ben Mendez of the State Patrol.
Rahn said the planes are also used for search and rescue operations, to look for fugitives, or to observe large traffic crashes.
Bowman, of the motorists association, thinks the patrols are about perception.
"It's to show motorists that, 'We are up in the sky, watching you,'" he said. "Is that really worth the cost incurred?"
Rahn said the cost should be put in perspective, adding that the price tag might not seem too large to the family of a person missing in the woods. He added the air patrols are a small part of the State Patrol's $80 million annual budget.
In July 2003, then-Gov. Jim Doyle cut funding to the program in his two-year budget. That fall, the state sold one of its planes for $38,100. But within a year, the aerial patrols were back in the air.
The status of the state Department of Transportation's budget under Gov. Scott Walker is likely a factor now, said Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.
"In the past decade, the state had been taking money from the Department of Transportation to balance the general fund," Berry said. "That changed this year and their finances are a little healthier."
Michigan phased out aerial speed enforcement more than a decade ago. That state's two helicopters and one aircraft are used primarily for search and rescue missions. Illinois uses five Cessnas for speed patrols and other duties. Minnesota has a mix of fixed-wing aircraft and a helicopter that watch for speeders.
Information from: The Post-Crescent, http://www.postcrescent.com