By Gregory Korte, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - The Obama administration will free up $473 million in unspent "idle earmarks" to allow states to spend the money on highway projects immediately, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Friday.
The unspent money comes from congressional pet projects that were written into four spending bills from 2003 to 2006. But 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.
"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.
The administration's move comes 19 months after USA TODAY first reported on the phenomenon of "orphan earmarks," which have stranded $7.5 billion in highway funding over the last 20 years. The U.S. Department of Transportation refused a Freedom of Information Act request for data on the unspent earmarks, so USA TODAY obtained the data from state governments with the help of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.
Members of Congress, including Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., have called on LaHood to free up the money as early as January 2011.
LaHood defended the timing of the White House announcement, saying it comes "right in the middle of the construction season." He said the department discovered the unspent money through "good staff work."
But congressional Republicans said the timing of the announcement was curious at best.
"The administration's statement that 'We can't wait' defies the reality that in fact they waited 3½ years to release these funds while projects and workers sat idle," said House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., in a statement.
LaHood said states will have until Oct. 1 to come up with new plans for the money, and must have the projects contracted by the end of the year. Any state that misses the deadlines risks having their money sent to another state.
Alabama has the most to gain from recovering old earmarks, with $51.5 million devoted to stranded projects that could be freed up.
That includes $14.8 million unspent for the Memphis-Huntsville-Atlanta Freeway project, also known as the East-West Corridor. That project came to a halt in 2010 after the U.S. Army raised security concerns with a bypass coming so close to the Redstone Arsenal.
Earmarks often go unspent because members of Congress only provide a small portion of the cost. "We'll get an earmark for a project that runs up into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and you may not be at a point where the small amount available can be rolled forward, or committed to a part of the project that makes sense at that time," said Tony Harris, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Transportation.
So freeing up that money is welcome news for states. "On the surface, it would seem to give us the flexibility to meet other priorities that might be deferred," he said.
Steve Ellis, of the anti-earmark Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the move is "more about the November campaign than about good policy."
"This isn't free cash. This would be new outlays - kind of like spending the $20 you find in your winter coat the first time you use it again after summer," he said.