Disappearmarks: Billions set aside for earmarks remain unspent


Last week Rep. Betsy Markey, D-Colo., introduced a bill that would redirect some $700 million in funds that have been languishing in Transportation Department accounts, designated to fund projects earmarked by members of Congress more than a decade ago and long since forgotten.

Sunlight’s Reporting Group has been tracking these “disappearmarks”–projects requested by members of Congress that are never completed–or, at times, even begun. In some cases, that’s due to changes in federal programs, in others, due to local opposition, to projects being ineligible for the earmarked funds, or because state and local authorities simply couldn’t get the projects under way.

While Markey has taken aim at $700 million worth of old earmarks, the total number of disappearmarks could be far higher. Data the Reporting Group acquired from the Federal Highways Administration shows that there are $6.5 billion worth of unspent earmarks from the most recent transportation funding bill, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU, passed in 2005.

(Scroll down for a searchable and downloadable list of highway projects earmarked since 1991 that have spent ten percent or less of their total funding. A code sheet for the data also follows.)

Five years after then President George W. Bush signed the bill into law, thousands of the earmarked projects in the bill have used ten percent or less of the total funding allotted to them.

Officials claim that since some of these are massive highway projects, it takes longer to get them off the ground. There are many reasons why highway projects face long delays. Some have been politically difficult to complete, either because the road or bridge isn’t a priority for state officials or because communities are resistant to the project. Other ventures have suffered because states must struggle to come up with matching funds. In 2002, the Government Accountability Office estimated that a major new federally financed construction highway project typically takes nine to 19 years to complete.

The Reporting Group obtained data on unspent earmarks from the Federal Highway Administration and from Markey’s office, which released additional data for which the Reporting Group had an outstanding FOIA request.

Ranging from major new roads and bridges to small exploratory studies, these projects were funded through the major federal transportation bills that authorize new spending on highways, buses and other transportation needs every five years. The last three bills were known as ISTEA (1991), TEA-21 (1998) and SAFETEA-LU (2005).

Markey’s bill would rescind unspent funding for earmarks after ten years; a measure similar to Markey’s, sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., passed the Senate earlier this year.

Earmarks are funds directed by Congress for particular projects. They are sometimes criticized for circumventing a more competitive allocation process, and because they place the legislator’s priorities over those of the executive branch and state and local officials – for example, state highway planners.

In recent months, the Reporting Group has been looking at similar “disappearmarks” for Federal Transit Administration projects, which were funded through the same transportation bills. Unlike transit earmarks, however, those for highways don’t normally lapse after a certain number of years. Sen. Feingold and Rep. Markey are pushing their bills as ways to curtail deficit spending by reclaiming unused money.

Code sheet for the data:
State – Name of state
Demo ID – the Federal Highway Administration’s identifying code for each project. First two letters stand for the state.
Description – A brief description of each project.
Public Law – The authorization bill in which funds were earmarked.
Section – The section of the bill that authorized the particular project.
Unobligated Amount – The dollar amount that has not yet been spent.
Federal Funds Allocated – The total amount that was originally earmarked.
Percentage Obligated – The percentage of the original earmarked amount that has been spent.

Correction: All the unobligated funds from earmarks in 1991’s ISTEA Act are included in this database, not just those projects for which 10 percent or less of their funds have been spent. The Sunlight Foundation obtained the data directly from the Federal Highways Administration, without filing a Freedom of Information Act request.

NOTE: Unobligated balances from the SAFETEA-LU Act (2005) are current as of March 2010.

Powered by Socrata