WASHINGTON Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Friday that $470 million in unspent earmark money would be made available to states for transportation projects, but it’s unclear how many jobs the funds would create in an economy suffering from stubbornly high unemployment.
LaHood said that states have until Oct. 1 to identify how they intend to use the money and must obligate the funds by the end of the year or lose them. The funds were originally requested by lawmakers for projects in their states but went unspent.
“There is a pent-up demand in America to fix infrastructure,” LaHood said in a conference call with reporters. “We want the states to spend the money as quickly as they can.”
The new funds, announced some two months before the presidential election, are a fraction of the nearly $48 billion that the department has awarded for road and bridge projects since 2009 under the administration’s economic stimulus program. Three years into the program, $36 billion in stimulus funds have been paid out, according to the Recovery.gov Website.
In October, President Barack Obama launched a “We Can’t Wait” initiative to bypass Congress and get more funds directly to states for job creation.
While the national jobless rate stood at 8.3 percent in July, unemployment in the construction industry was at 12.3 percent. Critics said that the administration could have come up with the funds sooner to put people back to work.
“The administration’s statement that ‘We Can’t Wait’ defies the reality that, in fact, they waited 3 1/2 years to release these funds while projects and workers sat idle, and in fact, they fiddled while America’s transportation policy was left on the back burner by the Democratic Congress for three years,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that the president has proposed several initiatives to boost jobs but has been blocked by Congress. However, Earnest was unable to provide immediate evidence that the "We Can’t Wait" initiatives had created jobs.
He said the results varied, but he noted that the initiative was not a replacement for congressional action.
"Quite the opposite," Earnest said. "We’ve actually said proactively that they don’t replace all the things that Congress should be doing to invest in our economy, to support the private sector and to create jobs."
Transportation officials and experts said the money was welcome.
Florida would receive $11.3 million in funds that could be used to improve intersections, rebuild highway interchanges and bridges, or construct new recreational trails and bike paths.
“We’re confident we can obligate and spend the money by the end of the year,” said Dick Kane, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation, which has an annual budget of about $6.5 billion.
The amount that each state is eligible to receive varies based on how much earmark funding it received but didn’t spend. California and Texas would receive $43 million and $30 million, respectively. Alaska would get $20 million. But Missouri is only on tap for $6.3 million, Washington state, $4.7 million, and North Carolina just $700,000.
A report last year by the California Transportation Commission concluded that the most populous state in the country would need more than $500 billion to meet its transportation needs through 2020.
“The transportation community is desperately underfunded,” said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. “Any money will help.”
Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.