USA Today has an excellent front page article entitled “Earmarks to Nowhere: States Losing Billions” authored by Cezary Podkul and Gregory Korte. They found over 7,300 congressional directed transportation earmarks remain all or partially unspent. In 3,649 not one penny has been spent. The problem is that the money earmarked for highway projects counts against the states share of federal gas tax revenue that the state would normally receive via the federal formula programs. Thus, it is really a reduction in federal money which the state should have received. I pointed this out in a post some time ago and it is entitled “Its Not New Money.”
There is no single source for tallying the earmarks, not even the federal government. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia responded to questions from the authors. A map is in the article.
The unspent earmarks occur for a variety of reasons and the US Department of Transportation can not reprogram the money. The article runs down a variety of reasons an earmark will remain unspent including everything from a typo (misidentifying a highway number) to identifying a small amount of money for a very large project or even providing an earmark for a project already underway. An earmark not may be applied to a project already underway. While the congressman or senator may have good intentions, a large amount of money is sitting idle when it could be used for “real” projects.
'The problem is so pervasive that almost 1 in 3 highway dollars earmarked since 1991 — about $13 billion — remains unspent, federal data show. "We call them orphan earmarks," says Michael Covington of the South Carolina Department of Transportation. "They don't have a home."'
With the states facing tremendous transportation challenges and budget shortfalls, the states would like to have the money freed up to be utilized as needed in their transportation programs. The Republicans in the House have pledged to eliminate earmarks. Now if the money sitting idle in “orphaned earmarks” could be distributed to their respective states, the highway users who paid the taxes could see billions of dollars returned to the US transportation system.