States Awaiting Details on How Much in Old Earmarks They Can Use Under Spending Bill

AASHTO Journal, 8 January 2016

Officials at state departments of transportation have begun to ask for details about the pending release of decade-old, unused project earmark funds they will be able to activate and spend elsewhere under the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill that Congress passed in December.

Bud Wright, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said states are seeking information about the unexpected earmarks provision, and how much they will receive. Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Administration is in the process of counting up the congressionally earmarked funds that qualify for re-purposing under the new appropriations measure.

capitalsun.jpgThe Eno Center’s Transportation Weekly newsletter, using FHWA data from last summer, reported the nationwide total of qualifying earmarks as of June 30, 2015, would be nearly $2.1 billion spread across most states and some territories. The FHWA, as reported earlier, is tabulating how much the totals would be through all of fiscal 2015 that ended Sept. 30.

“This provision releases a lot of funding and will apply to most states, though under some very specific conditions,” Wright said. “While we are waiting to see the FHWA’s final tally, a re-purposed earmark pool at the reported levels would be four times the size of the USDOT’s annual TIGER grant program, just to put it into perspective. So it is a substantial amount and will be very welcome, as many states continue to struggle to pay for their transportation project needs.”

However, Wright also noted that this is far different and more restrictive than the FHWA’s formula funds allocated from the Highway Trust Fund.

“This is not money that is spread evenly across the country based on population and size of the transportation network,” he said. “Some states will reportedly receive hefty totals, while a few will receive none at all from this earmarks pool and┬áthe freed-up money must be spent in┬áspecific geographic areas. So while it will bring welcome additional funding to many states, it is also a lot different than providing the DOTs with extra formula funds they can spend where they most need it.”

The earmarks language in the spending bill allows state DOTs access to earmarks for specific projects that are at least 10 years old and for which less than 10 percent of the total was obligated. States may apply the money to different projects within 50 miles of where the original earmark would have been spent, and must use it within three years after they notify the U.S. transportation secretary how they plan to spend it.

In addition, the provision will let state DOTs capture any leftover funds from decade-old earmarks under which projects were completed at less cost than the congressional earmark provided.

When lawmakers inserted such project-specific funding measures into law, they were written so that DOTs could only apply the federal funds to the specified projects and could not use unspent earmark monies elsewhere. The new provision will now let the DOTs apply such leftover earmark funds from completed projects anywhere in their states, but those totals are not expected to be very large.

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