WASHINGTON – Nearly $7 million in unspent federal highway funds is being made immediately available for other road and bridge projects in Arkansas, the Obama administration announced Friday.
Congress had earmarked the funds for five Arkansas projects in transportation spending bills that were enacted into law in 2004 and 2005. The bulk of the funds, $6.4 million, was set aside for construction of the Highway 226 "Northeast Arkansas Connector" in Jonesboro.
In an election year move, the Obama administration announced that governors would be given the chance to spend the money on other roads, bridges, railways and bus systems as long as projects were "shovel ready." Nationwide, the administration identified $473 million in unspent earmarks.
"These idle earmarks have sat on the shelf while our infrastructure continued to age and construction workers stood on the sidelines," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said during a telephone call with reporters. "These funds need to be put to use now so we can get people back to work."
Randy Ort, spokesman for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, said Friday that it plans to move forward with the Jonesboro project and by the end of the year will have obligated the $6.4 million toward construction of the four-lane divided roadway.
Ort was not certain what would be done with a $346,500 earmark for a railroad overpass in Marion. The city has only spent $5,000. State officials will contact the city to find out if they can obligate the remaining $341,500 before the end of the year.
"We’ll have to get with them on their plan," Ort said.
Most of the funds have already been spent on two other cited earmarks. There is $13,000 left over from a planning study for an I-535 extension and $192,000 remaining for a drainage project in Jonesboro. Ort said it is possible that the remainder could go to other state highway projects.
"Although it is not a lot of funds, we do like the flexibility," ort said.
The new "use it or lose it" program requires states to identify new targets for the leftover spending by Oct. 1, and to spend the money by the end of the year.
According to the White House, money unspent by Dec. 31 would be directed to states that are moving forward with new projects. But LaHood said he planned to give governors plenty of flexibility.
LaHood told reporters it would be difficult to say how many jobs might be created until governors weigh in with their plans to repurpose the money.