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States Review Projects for Earmark Funds

Mon September 03, 2012 - National Edition
Lori Lovely

In August, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood released $473 million in unspent highway earmarked funds from appropriations acts in fiscal years 2003-2006. Those acts contain provisions that authorize LaHood to make the unused funds available for eligible surface transportation projects.

The move allows state departments of transportation to use their unspent funds, some of which are nearly 10 years old, on any eligible highway, transit, passenger rail or port project. In addition to improving aging infrastructure, the funds should help create jobs at a time when hundreds of thousands of construction workers are looking for work.

“We are freeing up these funds so states can get down to the business of moving transportation projects forward and putting our friends and neighbors back to work,” LaHood told USA Today.

But the move isn’t without controversy — particularly over its timing. Although President Barack Obama insists he isn’t going to “let politics stand between construction workers and good jobs repairing our roads and bridges,” vowing to “continue to do everything we can to put Americans back to work,” some members of Congress view it as political strategy. Steve Ellis, of the anti-earmark Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the move is “more about the November campaign than about good policy.”

Some congress members have been calling for the money to be released since January 2011. At about the same time, USA Today, using data obtained from state governments with the help of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, reported on the orphan earmarks that left $7.5 billion in highway funding over the last 20 years virtually stranded.

In defense of the timing of the White House announcement, LaHood pointed out that it came “right in the middle of the construction season.”

Use It or Lose It

“This is not new money,” cautioned Will Wingfield, Indiana Department of Transportation public information director.

The unspent funds come from congressional pet projects that were written into four spending bills from 2003 to 2006, he explained. However, the money was never spent, either because of an error in writing the bill, because the project could be completed without it or because the earmark wasn’t big enough.

Two Indiana projects that stalled due to insufficient earmark funds may now get the go-ahead. The $415 million Hoosier Heartland project involves replacing State Road 25, a two-lane rural highway constructed in the 1930s, with a new four-lane, limited-access highway, which will link to the U.S. 24 Fort to Port highway. The 36-mi. (58 km) Hoosier Heartland project will upgrade the current highway’s 81 at-grade street intersections, three at-grade railroad crossings and more than 140 private entrances while improving access, safety and promoting economic development across Tippecanoe, Carroll and Cass counties.

Part of the Major Moves initiative to upgrade U.S. 31 to freeway standards, the 15-mi. (24 km) realignment of U.S. 31 from U.S. 30 in Plymouth to the U.S. 20 bypass in South Bend will be built on new terrain east of the existing route. Wingfield said the $224 million price tag is just for construction, which is expected to continue through 2014.

Both projects were slated to receive a small portion of earmark plans years ago, Wingfield said, but until Indiana’s privatized toll road provided additional funds, neither could be completed.

They are examples of what President Obama hopes to put a stop to by vowing to veto any bill with earmarks and by promising to support legislation to permanently ban earmarks.

By releasing these funds, the Obama administration announced that it will no longer allow infrastructure funds to sit idle as a result of stalled earmark projects.

“These idle earmarks have sat on the shelf as our infrastructure has continued to age and construction workers sat on the sideline. That ends today,” LaHood told reporters.

“It’s good to see Washington moving away from earmarks,” Wingfield said. “Earmarks have a negative effect because they tie up funds for specific projects.” When seven local projects were scrapped, earmark funds sat idle because, he explained, “if earmark funds are left over after a project is completed, they are tied up, unable to be spent elsewhere without intervention by Congress.”

Earmarks also can go unspent because members of Congress only provide a small portion of the cost of a project.

“Assigning funding to projects is important.”

Plan B

States must identify the projects they plan to use the funds for by Oct. 1, and must have the projects contracted by Dec. 31, 2012. To ensure that this funding is quickly put to use to improve the nation’s infrastructure, any state that misses the deadlines risks having its money proportionally redistributed in FY 2013 to states that did meet the deadline.

According to Wingfield, Indiana is seeking additional clarification in order to determine if the funds can be used on the originally intended projects now that new timelines have been established.

“If not, we will use them in other ways that are allowed. We’re meeting with the federal highway department to see the rules. We will work within those rules to maximize all funding available.”

Of 10 projects currently under way in Indiana, three are state highway projects: the Hoosier Heartland project connecting Lafayette to Fort Wayne; U.S. 31 from Plymouth to South Bend; and U.S. 37 and SR 145 in Orange and Crawford counties.

Other states also are in the process of assessing potential projects in order to benefit from recovering old earmarks. Alabama has the highest unobligated balance, most of it devoted to stranded projects ($51.5 million), followed by California ($43.1 million), Texas ($30.8 million), New York ($29 million) and Pennsylvania ($28.5 million). Maine and the District of Columbia have just over $50,000 each outstanding. Wyoming is the only state with a zero balance.

Lori Lovely

Lori Lovely is an award-winning journalist, editor and author of the children's book Isadora's Dance. She has worked for newspapers, magazines and niche publications, covering a wide-ranging list of topics that includes motor sports, construction, MSW, energy, environmental issues, water, animal rights and issues, history, Native American issues and people, real estate and home decor, farming and more. Her degrees in History taught this dedicated professional to research thoroughly and ask detailed questions in order to winnow interesting facts that convey the essence of the story. As a seasoned writer and compassionate storyteller, she accurately portrays the subject in a manner that entrances the reader.

When she's not working on assignment, Lori is tending to her historic Indiana farm, where she raises alpacas. An inveterate animal lover, this vegetarian enjoys spending time with her animals and working in her garden.

Read more from Lori Lovely here.

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