NY Sitting on Mountain of Unspent Earmarks

Dead-end projects cost state more than $600 million

Years ago, a major bridge expansion on Long Island was funded with a $5 million congressional earmark, but the project remains untouched and not a penny has been spent.

This is what's known as a "disappearmark" -- projects funded with congressional earmarks that inexplicably hit dead ends and stall for years. The snag ends up costing taxpayers because the idle funds are counted against the state in formulas for other federal aid.

“It highlights the weakness of the earmark system and it’s the kind of thing that makes individual taxpayers crazy,” said Susan Lerner, director of Common Cause NY, a nonprofit good government watchdog.

It turns out there are thousands of projects, stuck in financial purgatory like the Hospital Road bridge.  Federal funding was secured years ago, but nothing has happened since.

NBC New York combed through earmarks approved in the $244 billion transportation bill that passed Congress in 2005.

Among the droves of pet projects are more than $600 million in stalled or scrapped New York initiatives -- money intended to be spent on transportation projects.

That includes $15 million to buy ferry boats for service to and from the Rockaway peninsula.  Rep. Anthony Weiner requested the cash to establish the ferry service, but the Bloomberg administration wasn’t on board.

Other dead-end projects include an $8 million request from Rep. Charlie Rangel for a parking facility at Harlem Hospital.  The biggest unspent earmark is $90 million for a freight tunnel from New Jersey to Brooklyn.  Rep. Jerrold Nadler requested the money and says he still hopes the project will move forward.

The unspent money is not just sitting idle.  The federal Department of Transportation treats the funds like a check that could be cashed at any time.  In other words, the $5 million earmark for the Hospital Road Bridge counts against New York in formulas that calculate highway aid.

“If a project isn’t actually moving forward, the amount of money that’s put aside for the project is deducted from the amount of money that the state gets from the Federal Highway Fund,” Lerner said. 

Rep. Tim Bishop says the Hospital Road bridge project is stalled because the town of Brookhaven has failed to come up with matching funds necessary to complete the expansion of the roadway.  Bishop is now calling for a limit on the amount of time an earmark can sit.

"We need to have a drop dead date on earmarks that have not been expended,” he said.

When asked whether Bishop should have requested the money, given a lack of commitment from local municipalities, the congressman said:

"I don’t make local decisions.  My job is to try to help bring the federal government to the table to help local stakeholders put in place the projects that they give a high priority to.” 

If you’d like to find "disappearmarks” in your neighborhood, the Sunlight Foundation has compiled a list of more than 3,000 dead-end pet projects from the last three federal transportation bills.

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