Earmarks to nowhere

04/01/11 at 8:03 pm

USA Today leads its Jan. 5 edition with a Stabile Center investigation into how congressional earmarks have cost states $7.5 billion dollars in lost highway funding over the last 20 years.

Last summer, Cezary Podkul (Stabile 2011) began researching  “orphan earmarks” for his master’s project. He found over 7,000 congressionally directed highway projects in which the money, or a good portion of it, remains unspent for various reasons. At least 3,600 of these haven’t been spent at all because of typographical or other errors.  But states cannot reallocate these unspent earmarks, which are counted against their share of federal highway funds.

“The story hit home for me,” said Podkul. “I am from Franklin Park, one of the cities cited in the piece, where a botched earmark from President Obama resulted in $1 million lost by Illinois for its highway needs.”

The USA Today story, co-authored by Podkul and reporter Gregory Korte, begins with a 13-year old earmark: $375,000 allocated by Indiana Rep. David McIntosh to improve State Road 31 in the town of Columbus. The problem was there is no State Road 31, only a US 31. The earmark not only remains unspent, it’s also reduced the money that Indiana would have received from the federal highways fund.

Podkul pieced together the information  by making freedom of information requests in 50 states in order to build a nationwide database on orphan earmarks. He spent four months researching the project on his own and two months working on the story with USA Today.

The story has also been featured in the  NBC Nightly News.

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