Disappearmarks: Millions in SAFETEA-LU transit earmarks are unspent


A sketch of what Rochester’s Renaissance Square bus terminal would have looked like.

Nearly $120 million in Federal Transit Administration earmarks that were introduced and approved by Congress have sat untouched in FTA accounts for years and have now lapsed, according to an FTA list.

The list of unallocated earmarks, which the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, show that funds for these projects should have been used by September 30, 2009 at the latest, but due to various reasons, were never spent. (See spreadsheet below for the full list. Some projects appear in the database multiple times because they were awarded funds in different years; to arrive at totals for projects, add those numbers together. For how we got this data read our reporter’s notebook here.)

Earmarks are federal funds provided by Congress for projects that circumvent the merit-based or competitive allocation processes or curtail the executive branch from managing its responsibilities in the grant allocation process.

Under the transportation act SAFETEA-LU – The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users – $24 billion in earmarks were approved for thousands of transportation projects across the country. The act was in place from August 2005 to September 2009 and was renewed temporarily by Congress earlier this year. In March, President Obama signed the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act, which extended the SAFETEA-LU until the end of 2010.

The $119.2 million in unspent transit funds are from over 150 earmarks Congress approved in 2006 and 2007 that had been set aside under SAFETEA-LU for communities to purchase new buses, plan and build light rail and bus rapid transit projects, and fund state and local evaluations of transit projects.

The top ten unspent earmarks include:

  1. $19.6 million for a proposed New Starts light rail system by the Triangle Transit Authority in North Carolina that which expired in 2008.
  2. Nearly $10 million to assist in constructing Renaissance Square in Rochester, N.Y., that would have included a performing arts center, a college satellite campus and a bus terminal. The project was canceled in 2009.
  3. $4.9 million for a proposed commuter rail between Ann Arbor and Detroit that expired in 2008.
  4. $4 million for a Trans-Hudson Midtown Corridor Study for New Jersey Transit.
  5. $3.9 million Detroit Center City Loop.
  6. $3.9 million for the Schuylkill Valley Metro, a proposed railway that would have linked Philadelphia with Reading, Pa., that expired in 2008.
  7. $3.4 million for the Rhode Island Integrated Commuter Rail Project.
  8. $2.8 million for an extension of the Metro Gold Line from Pasadena to Montclair in Southern California.
  9. $2.8 million for a downtown transit center in Indianapolis.
  10. Nearly $2.5 million for a public bus transfer and parking facility at the Billings Clinic in Montana.

In the coming months, the Transportation Department will allocate the funds for these lapsed earmarks to other projects that it deems appropriate. It is the first time that allocations for these discretionary funds from lapsed SAFETEA-LU earmarks will take place. The funds for those unrealized projects will be combined with other unallocated funds and awarded to urban circulator systems, bus livability initiative improvement grants, bus and bus facilities, and other discretionary livability programs. The total amount of unallocated resources, which includes lapsed earmarks, that will be distributed is over $1 billion.

Why earmarks become disappearmarks

The reasons for unspent earmark funds differ from community to community. In many cases, internal factors at the project level led to the funds lapsing. In Rochester, N.Y., for example, the community was given nearly $10 million in transit earmarks to assist in building Renaissance Square, a project that was touted as the largest public works project in the county’s history, combining a performing arts center, a satellite college campus and bus terminal. But a conflict between city and county officials killed the plan, and the project is now defunct.

In Tennessee, the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority was unable to spend nearly $1.4 million in earmarks that would have funded an intermodal transportation facility at the airport. That project was nixed, when the Authority decided to get rid of a bus component to the project – making them ineligible for a transit earmark, said Authority spokesman John Greaud.

“There was a change in philosophy on the mode of operation and the needs of the airport and we needed to focus on public parking and rental cars… it was no longer intermodal,” Greaud said.

Many of these lapsed earmarks were also for New Starts projects – which include light rail, commuter rail, rapid rail and bus rapid transit projects – that failed to be funded after 2006 when the Bush administration instituted stricter rules for getting federal funding for New Starts projects. For more on this, read this previous Disappearmark story.

Other earmarked projects simply ran out of time to be funded. In Syracuse, N.Y., the Central New York Regional Transportation Authority was awaiting environmental approvals to build a downtown transit hub for their bus system when their earmark lapsed.

“We couldn’t put those funds towards construction without design and engineering being at least 30 percent in progress. And we couldn’t get that until we had a site. And we couldn’t get a site until we had complete local approval,” said Steve Share, a senior vice president of the Syracuse authority. “These [earmarks] have a three year life and we were unable to get through the process of getting all the local approvals.”

Another way to spend lapsed funds

These lapsed earmarks only represent what is currently listed in FTA books as unspent or partially spent. Thus, it’s not a complete picture of all the SAFETEA-LU earmarks that have failed to be funded within the earmarks’ deadlines.

That’s because Congress can also extend or reprogram individual earmarks in annual appropriation acts, which are not part of the FTA list of lapsed earmarks. In the Fiscal Year 2009 and 2010 appropriation acts, nearly $23 million in lapsed new starts and bus and bus-related earmarks were reprogrammed using this method.

Congressional chairs can also write letters to the Transportation Secretary that direct the FTA to reallocate, extend, or reprogram specific earmarks, with the Secretary’s approval. The FTA does not track this method however, as it takes place outside of the annual appropriation act. To learn about an example of this Congressional reallocation option, read this prior Disappearmark story about a reallocated project in Buffalo.

The Buffalo project was reprogrammed as a result of a letter from Rep. John Olver and Sen. Patty Murray on January 16, 2009.

In the meantime, the FTA is currently working to spend these lapsed funds on projects chosen through a competitive process. That’s a better method than earmarking, some watchdog groups say.

“That’s the way all this money should have been spent in the first place,” said Tom Schatz, President of Citizens Against Government Waste, which tracks earmarks.

Steve Ellis, the vice president of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense agrees.

“It would have been good if it had started that way in 2005,” Ellis said of the upcoming FTA distribution of the unspent earmark money. “A lawmaker gets to brag about what he got or obtained, but in reality it’s been a mirage for the community. I freely concede that lawmakers know and understand their district, but they’re not transit experts anymore than they are defense experts or police experts. They shouldn’t be figuring where or how we should be spending our money. In many ways it ends up being a lot of wasted time rather than an efficient process to allocate precious tax dollars.”

(Full Disclosure: The Sunlight Foundation has funded Taxpayers for Common Sense.)

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