'Clear the books': States eager for disbursement of $2.1B in unused federal highway funds

Dive Brief:

  • The Federal Highway Administration has $2.1 billion of previously earmarked but unused highway project funds burning a hole in its pocket, and states are waiting for their piece, according to the Engineering News-Record.
  • The unused funds were set aside for projects originally authorized as far back as 10 years ago. The 2016 omnibus bill, which called for the disbursement of unused funds, included the condition that the money be used on projects within 50 miles of the original earmarked ones. Because of this, FHWA officials said, there is little leeway  and a wide variation  in the disbursement amounts between each state.
  • States must decide which projects will get the newly available funds within three years, and ENR reported that federal-aid highway funds can typically be used for any infrastructure program, not just highways or roads. The FHWA is expected to announce award amounts this month.

Dive Insight:

Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors of America’s highway and transportation division, told ENR there are several reasons why earmarked funds go unspent. He said an earmarked project may not be a state priority, project plans may change, or the set-aside amount might not be enough to perform the work.

The soon-to-be-released funds are above and beyond the funding increase in December’s five-year, $305-billion Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, which raises the overall highway obligation ceiling by $2.1 billion, or 5%, in fiscal year 2016, ENR reported.

Deery told the ENR, "They’ve tried to clear the books [on unused earmarks] a couple of times over the years and they always get pushback from states and from members of Congress... So this was a way of kind of making everybody happy."

Although the funds will be spent over the course of several years, states will surely welcome the extra infusion for their infrastructure plans.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a $100 billion state infrastructure plan during his State of the State speech in January. Cuomo said his aggressive program will create more than 250,000 jobs through projects like the Penn Station renovation, a $22 billion road and bridge project in upstate New York, a third track for the Long Island Rail Road's Main Line, and a $1 billion expansion of the Javits Center.

A few days after Cuomo's speech, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal announced a $10 billion, 10-year transportation investment plan for his state, with the first 18-month portion covering $2.2 billion of primarily road and bridge work. 

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Filed Under: Infrastructure Legal/Regulation
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