Obama administration making highway funds available

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Friday announced that the administration would release the unspent earmarks to the states in order to allow that money to be spent on other transportation projects.

The announcement didn’t mean new money; instead it meant money that lawmakers had “earmarked” or targeted for specific projects can be used for other state transportation priorities instead.

The administration said the announcement aimed to stimulate local economies by allowing new transportation projects to begin.

“We’re releasing these funds so Ohio can get down to the business of moving transportation projects forward and putting our friends and neighbors back to work,” LaHood said.

Congress for several years has banned congressional earmarks, but the unspent money comes from highway earmarks that predate that ban. The money released was earmarked between fiscal years 2003 and 2006. States will have by Oct. 1 to decide how they want to spend the money, and are required to obligate that money by the end of this year or risk having that money obligated to other states.

States had anywhere from no unspent earmarks to, in the case of Alabama, more than $51 million in unspent earmarks.

Steve Faulkner, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation, said the department was “pleased” to have the flexibility to spend unused federal earmark dollars. On Friday, the department was trying to determine which 15 projects comprised the more than $12.5 million in unused federal dollars, and whether that money was truly transferrable to other accounts. He said it might be possible that some of the money was to be aimed at projects that are still in progress.

“If the $12.5 million truly is able to be transferred elsewhere in ODOT’s budget, we will work to identify where that money can best be used,” he said.

Still, he said, the announcement “comes nowhere close to helping ODOT address its $1.6 billion budget hole caused by reductions in motor fuel consumption and years of over-promising projects to local communities by previous administrations.”

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