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“Orphaned Transportation Earmarks” Part II

Shirley Ybarra
February 2, 2011, 10:52am

I first reported on the “orphaned transportation earmarks” (read unspent moneys) here base on a USA Today article  The bottom line from the research by Cezary Podkul and Gregory Kort is that $13 billion in highway earmarks — about 1 in 3 dollars earmarked since 1991 — remains unspent. 
  
Since that report, USA Today followed up with another article yesterday.

Senator Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) introduced two bills last week. The first is the “Redistribution of Unspent Earmarks Act” and the second is “Use It or Lose It Act.”  Together, these two bills would mandate that earmarks older than three years be returned to the states to use on any eligible highway project.

Right after the initial article appeared, Senator Claire McCaskell (D-Missouri) wrote to US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and asked him to help free up the old money.  However, it is only Congress who can fix this problem not the administration on their own.

So what to do?  Remember first, these earmarks are designated projects utilizing moneys from the highway trust fund (HTF)  These moneys are usually taken “off the top” of a state’s allocation of  federal funds. Then, remember the HTF comes from user fees, such as the gas tax which you and I pay at the pump.  Thus, these funds should be kept in the HTF and not used to balance the federal budget elsewhere.  The best solution would be to return the money to the states where the earmark was made and permit the state to use the money in the usual federal programs as it sees fit.

As Ron Utt from Heritage noted recently, “Importantly—and something generally ignored or misunderstood by both the public and Members of Congress—transportation earmarks provide no additional money to any state or to transportation spending in general. Rather, most transportation earmarks are carved out of each state’s formula allocation so that each dollar devoted to an earmark means one dollar less that is available to the state’s own priority projects.”  This is similar to my comments which stated “It is not New Money” 


This “orphaned earmark” story is not over yet; however we have seen a much needed light shown on the amount of money which could be available for needed transportation projects in the states. Hopefully, Congress finds the right “fix”. 


Shirley Ybarra is Senior Transportation Policy Analyst


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