U.S. DOT urges states to transfer ‘idle” earmarks to other infrastructure projects

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In a move that should give a boost to heavy infrastructure construction, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation is allowing states to transfer $473.4 million in highway funds earmarked years ago, but unspent, to other projects that can use the money now, reports Engineeering News-Record.

Under the transfer program, which DOT Secretary Ray LaHood announced on Aug. 17, governors have until Oct. 1 to identify the projects on which they want to use their shares of the $473.4 million. Funds must be obligated by Dec. 31. The aid can go to highway, transit, passenger rail or port work.

North Carolina has a $703,634 unobligated balance of FY 2003-2006 Appropriation Act Earmarks. South Carolina has an unobligated balance of $12,310,291.71.  See state-by-state breakdown Here.

“These idle earmarks have sat on the shelf as our infrastructure continued to age and our construction workers stood on the sideline,” LaHood told reporters. “These funds need to be put to use now so we can get people back to work.”

North Carolina will get a very small share – $703,634 – of the $473 million in unspent money released for transportation projects, reports the News & Observer.   The article says North Carolina will get a new chance to use $79,934 it received but has not spent for a Greenville greenways improvement project in 2005, and $623,700 unused from the South Boulevard signal system project in Charlotte in 2006.

Ted Vaden, a state Department of Transportation deputy secretary, said the greenways project was finished below its originally projected cost. He said Greenville soon will request part of its promised $79,934 and expects to spend the rest of the money for a related greenway project nearby.

The city of Charlotte updated its South Boulevard traffic signals but was denied the $623,700 federal funding because it had failed to get federal authorization before completing construction, Vaden said. So the city absorbed the expense, leaving the federal earmark money unspent.  We will definitely use that money for some other federal-aid-eligible projects,” Vaden said.

Carolinas AGC NC Director, Highway & Heavy Division, Berry Jenkins says “this situation illustrates why our contractors prefer that the earmark process not be utilized in that it tends to tie DOT hands to specific projects that may not be able to develop to allow the funding use. Under this new scenario the DOT can have the flexibility to get the money spent quickly and help create jobs . The recent federal reauthorization legislation, MAP21 , eliminated ear marks and provided flexibility to the DOTs.”

LaHood said he expects “an immediate response” from governors regarding the projects to which they want to shift the money. “They all have lists of projects that need to be funded,” he said.

LaHood said the transfers will require U.S. DOT approvals, but added,    “We’re not going to take forever to do that.” He said projects should be “shovel-ready.” He also said there will be “a lot of flexibility” in how the money can be reallocated. For example, governors could use the money to accelerate projects already under way, he  said.

Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors highway and transportation division, says that the new plan is “freeing up money that’s been sitting [a state’s] piggybank, if you will, that they couldn’t use and now they can use it for highway projects.” He expects that most of the funds will go for road and bridge work, noting that “most states have pretty significant highway needs….”  Deery adds a long time can elapse between when funds are obligated and highway projects bid. But he says, “I would be willing to bet that this money is included in the bid lettings in the spring of 2013.”

Senators and House members inserted the earmarks in past appropriations measures, but sometimes the amounts were too small to get a project under way and thus the money was not spent. LaHood said in other cases, projects were finished but did not need all of the amount appropriated.  Read More.

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