In an effort to create more jobs and improve transportation, the Obama administration announced a new "Use It or Lose It" program, making nearly $500 million in unspent earmarks available for states to use on so-called "shovel ready" infrastructure projects.
From 2003 to 2006, Congress set aside $473 million in earmark transportation funds that have never been spent.
"These idle earmarks have sat on the shelf as our infrastructure continued to age and construction workers stood on the sideline," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a conference call Friday. "I'm taking that unspent money and giving it right back to the states so they can put it to work on the infrastructure projects that they need most -- projects that will put people to work."
LaHood said he believes the "Use It or Lose it: We Can't Wait" program will create thousands of jobs. "At a time when one in five construction workers is out of work, those are the jobs we need and we need them right now."
President Obama has promised to veto any congressional bills with earmarks, but this money was set aside before Obama took office, the White House said.
Republican reaction on the timing of the announcement was stern: "The administration's statement that 'we can't wait' defies the reality that in fact they waited three and a half years to release these funds while projects and workers sat idle," said Rep. John L. Mica, R-Florida, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "In fact they fiddled while America's transportation policy was left on the back burner by the Democratic Congress for three years until I helped rescue it from the funeral pyre."
When pressed as to whether this announcement was made now because of the political season, LaHood said the timing has more to do with the state of our "construction season."
"We understand the political climate ... but we still need to put people to work and that's what we're doing with this money," LaHood said. "Our goal at the Department of Transportation and the president's goal is to get as many people to work as possible. ... We're in the middle of a construction season and people are ready to go to work."
Forty-nine states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico will receive funds. Wyoming has no unspent earmarks, so it will receive no funds.
States have until the first of October to identify projects for which they plan to use the money. The Department of Transportation must approve the projects before they can move forward. States have until December 31 to obligate those projects. Funds not committed by the end of December will be redistributed into the 2013 fiscal year budget to states that met the deadline.
LaHood said it was the hard work of Transportation Department staffers that found the money.
"During the time that we were waiting for Congress to pass the transportation bill, our people were looking for money anywhere that we could find it and our folks came upon the idea that these earmarks could not be spent," LaHood said. "We checked the law ... we wanted to make sure that we got it correct. Legally this is the correct way to do it."