Reporter’s Notebook: How we got the latest FTA disappearmark data


When we first reported about how we attempted to track down disappearmarks from the Federal Transit Administration, we recounted the difficulties in getting data in an electronic format. In response to our first Freedom of Information request, we were given a 121-page printout of a database, which in the end didn’t accurately include the information we sought: which SAFETEA-LU earmarks went unspent.

When our story ran, the FTA contacted us and said that one reason that FOIA requests are often returned in a printout and not a database form is to allow for the FOIA office to redact or black out any information that may be sensitive. But they were unsure of why our requests for an electronic copy were denied as there is no sensitive information in this database.

When we were told about the existence of a list of lapsing earmarks (what we were originally looking for), we filed a second FOIA request. Despite the fact that there is no sensitive information in this list, we were again given a paper copy of our return. Thankfully the list was much shorter and we were able to use optical character recognition software to convert the paper copy into a database. (See our story today on this list of lapsed earmarks)

Why is an electronic copy so important? Well, it allows users to easily search and analyze projects that are happening in their specific communities. Another reason could be that vital information can be lost when something that originally exists in a database format is simply printed out and forwarded.

Case in point: When we first got our response to the second FOIA, we were puzzled as it only included lapsing bus funds. After calling the FOIA office, they realized that they had only printed out the first tab in the excel spreadsheet. There were other tabs that included lapsing earmarks on New Starts and Alternatives Analysis projects.

We were able to get those finally, but again, only in a printout.