Document Sheds Light on Pending $2B in Earmark Funds as States Await FHWA Action

AASHTO Journal, 25 January 2016

A detailed spreadsheet that shows more than $2 billion in unused, decade-old congressional earmarks allows state departments of transportation to begin estimating how much money they can receive when the Federal Highway Administration completes its preparations for states to draw those funds.

The late-December omnibus federal appropriations bill for fiscal 2016 included a provision for state DOTs to reallocate earmarks that are at least a decade old and for which no more than 10 percent of the original earmark for a specific construction project was already obligated.

capitalsun.jpgThe FHWA will calculate how much states and territorial DOTs may tap in earmarks that would qualify as of the end of the last federal fiscal year, Sept. 30, 2015, but it could be several more weeks before it has completed the process and makes the details available.

Meanwhile, states have been asking for details of how much money they might expect to receive.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has obtained a spreadsheet for unspent earmark funds as of last March 31, which should be close to any final totals extending through Sept. 30. That will let states make some initial plans about funding levels they can expect to use once the FHWA completes its process.

This spreadsheet includes decade-old earmarks with less than 10 percent obligated, and shows a total of nearly $2.2 billion. Its detail will allow state agencies to determine which of theirs should qualify.

Nearly every state is on the list to re-purpose some old project earmarks they could not use before now.

Earlier, the Eno Center’s Transportation Weekly newsletter reported – using figures through last June – that  the total of unused earmarks DOTs can draw on under the new law would be over $2 billion.

AASHTO Executive Director Bud Wright has said that the earmarks provision “releases a lot of funding and will apply to most states, though under some very specific conditions.” He notes that the amount of money involved is about four times the size of the USDOT’s annual TIGER grant program, and will help many states that are struggling to pay for their transportation project needs.

But he also notes that “this is not money that is spread evenly across the country based on population and size of the transportation network” as with the normal programs under the Highway Trust Fund.

“Some states will reportedly receive hefty totals, while a few will receive none at all from this earmarks pool and the freed-up money must be spent in specific 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 money comes with restrictions that include spending it within 50 miles of the originally targeted project, and within three years of notifying the USDOT how the state plans to use it.

The spending bill also said states could use accrued balances that were left unspent when an original congressional project earmark did not cost as much as lawmakers initially approved. Agencies could reallocate those funds anywhere in their systems but that total is not expected to be as significant as the qualifying unspent earmarks.

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