The problem is so pervasive that almost 1 in 3 highway dollars earmarked since 1991 — about $13 billion — remains unspent, federal data show. "We call them orphan earmarks," says Michael Covington of the South Carolina Department of Transportation. "They don't have a home."These orphan earmarks are treated as an uncashed check. It only counts against the budget if the project goes forward. But since the earmark is treated as having been committed to a particular state, it counts against that state's share of federal transportation dollars, reducing the overall amount the state gets.
The federal government treats an unspent earmark like an undated check that could be cashed at any time. It affects the federal budget only if it's cashed. Nevertheless, because lawmakers inserted some of the earmarks into particular sections of transportation bills, many of the orphan earmarks also count against a state's share of federal highway funds and have taken billions of dollars away from state transportation departments across the nation.
During the past 20 years, orphan earmarks reduced the amount of money that states would have received in federal highway funding by about $7.5 billion, USA TODAY found. That's $7.5 billion that states could have used to replace obsolete bridges, repair aging roads and bring jobs to rural areas.
Pennsylvania, already coping with a transportation funding crisis, lost out on $392 million. New York, struggling with the worst budget deficit in its history, lost $607 million. California, forced to consider a bailout from the federal government, could have had $568 million more for transportation had it not been for orphan earmarks.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, says that money would go a long way toward plugging his state's shortage of transportation funding. "It shows you what's wrong with the earmark system," he says.
President Obama's proposed 2011 budget would eliminate those orphan earmarks that are 20 years or older with a savings of $263 million.
I don't think that goes far enough. Anything older than 10 years should be history, and those that are 5 years and older should be on the chopping block and vetted. The process should be regularized so that the projects are reviewed annually and the statute of limitations on earmarks should be brought down to 5 years with a review beginning on projects three years or older.
A process should be instituted so that only those projects that a state department of transportation has committed to undertaking can be funded. Projects that are funded from other sources should be earmarked so as to free up the state funds to rebuild other critical infrastructure.
"Critical infrastructure" should be defined so that projects that are prioritized according to need and not merely to spend money on a given project merely because a politician wants to bring the bacon home. While rebuilding critical infrastructure is necessary, maintenance of infrastructure should be prioritized so as to keep such structures from becoming deficient in the first place. Regular maintenance, including cleaning out drainage, painting, and fixing problems before they manifest into more serious issues can save more money, but doesn't get nearly the attention as a ribbon cutting on a new bridge or tunnel.