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Why Are States About to Get $2 Billion in Extra Road Money?

Congress just gave new life to old earmarks, but how that money is spent will surely spark debate.

Media gather at the site of the Alaskan Way Viaduct project in Seattle in January 2016. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

It’s been several years since Congress banned earmarks, but they’re still paying off for state transportation departments in a big way—up to $2 billion big.

The 2016 omnibus spending bill included a provision that gives new life to funding originally earmarked for transportation projects more than a decade ago. (Congressional earmarks directed money to specific projects, often regardless of merit or feasibility, one infamous example being Alaska’s so-called “bridge to nowhere.”) State DOTs that obligated less than 10 percent of this funding will now be able to use it for entirely new projects.

“These earmarks are really, really old Congressionally directed spending that states never intended to act on,” says Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration. “So rather than have those funds sit on the shelf unused, what we have in the past several years been attempting to do is actually put that money to work in ways state DOTs need.”

There are any number of reasons why a DOT might not have spent earmarked money. Local officials or the public might have lost faith in a project. A change of political leadership might have led to new priorities. DOTs might have been unable to raise any requisite local funds to match the federal pile. A member of Congress might have unwittingly funneled money to a project that wasn’t actually part of the state’s long-range transportation plan.

In its online journal, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) is reporting that the total amount of unused earmarks could reach $2.18 billion (for states as well as U.S. territories). That figure is based on an FHWA financial sheet from March 31, 2015.

The documented acquired by AASHTO doesn’t offer individual state subtotals, so CityLab used the financial sheet to create the following ballpark list. By this count, six DOTs seem in line to receive hundreds of millions of dollars, including New York ($231.8 million), Georgia ($170.7 million), California ($143.5 million), and Pennsylvania ($134.7 million). Two states, North Dakota and Wyoming, seem positioned to get nothing:

Hecox would not confirm the total figure and says states might have spent some of the money between March and the end of the fiscal year, which could impact the available funding. He says the agency is working on an updated funding list and plans to announce final reapportionments in the next two or three weeks. He also says FHWA has distributed unused earmark money on more than one occasion in the recent past, but that it “didn’t happen regularly” because doing so required Congressional approval.

The money will be freed of its original earmarked project and come with relatively few strings attached. The omnibus states that DOTs will only be able to use the money for projects “within the same general geographic area within 50 miles for which the funding was designated.” However Hecox says a state can “definitely” lump its money together for a new project and that the main geographical boundary is the state itself.

“That doesn’t help the state—if we give them money back just to limit it again,” he says.

The spending must go toward a federally eligible project that’s been on a DOT’s transportation improvement plan, meaning the money will have to help a project that’s part of the state’s long-term vision. Hecox says FHWA expects the funding to be used for “roads and bridges”—not strictly rail projects. He says the money could “possibly” go toward public transit, depending on the project.

Stephen Lee Davis, a spokesman for Transportation for America, says state DOTs should have to work with the local communities that were the original intended recipients of the earmark. Often a local transportation agency might have needed the money for a legitimate project that the state itself wasn’t willing to fund. If these states now get that same money to use however they wish, they’ll be rewarded for having blocked local efforts in the first place.

Local priorities aside, says Davis, the whole prospect of giving out loosely restricted highway cash feels a bit backward. “In an era when we're trying to more carefully measure the performance of our transportation investments and provide the biggest bang for the buck, more money handed out without attention paid to need or merits or possible return on investment feels like turning the clock back to a different time than we're in today,” he says.

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