Thanks to the power of Facebook, a personal friend of mine shared a link yesterday to a USA Today story on government earmarks – specifically those related to transportation. And do you know what the conclusion of the story is: there is a whole lot of money being set aside for transportation-related projects that is never getting spent.
Why? Because for all the good intentions (for now, let’s skip the debate over whether earmarks are a good or bad idea) of the senators and representatives involved, red tape, typos, and even delays in getting the money approved prevents funds from ever being spent.
The article includes a few fascinating stories; stories like the one in Indiana where money that was set aside for “State Road 31” in Columbus. The problem is there is no State Road 31, only U.S. 31. Now, $375,000 sits unspent, designated for improvements on State Road 31.
There are plenty of more stories just like this sprinkled throughout the article. Reporters Cezary Podkul and Gregory Korte did a fabulous job (with the help of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, the Sunlight Foundation, and the USA Today research staff) sifting through 20 years of earmarks.
They found that nearly $1 out of every $3 earmarked for highway projects since 1991 remains unspent. In all, that amounts to almost $13 billion that could have been used to improve our roadways. And because in some cases, the article continues, that “earmarked” money comes out of the transportation funding any given state receives, the authors report that approximately $7.5 billion in transportation funds that should have been distributed to states never was.
California has nearly $568 million unspent; Pennsylvania, which has a transportation budget crisis like many states on its hands, has $392 million in unspent money. And because of the way the money is earmarked, it can’t be used for any other purpose. Even Atlanta has $2.7 million remaining to improve the infrastructure for the 1996 Olympics – still waiting to be spent.
Even my home state of Rhode Island has left nearly $100 million on the table. When I was growing up, the old joke in the state used to be that the state left all the potholes on the roads as “speed control devices.” Perhaps if some of that earmarked money had been designated for improving “speed control devices,” rather than the highways themselves, the state would have been better off.