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How to use an unspent $473 million? No surprise, ideas differ

August 20, 2012|By Richard Simon
  • Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., complains that the administration is changing long-standing policy without consulting Congress or local officials.
Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., complains that the administration is changing… (Gerald Herbert / Associated…)

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is taking $473 million in unspent money once earmarked by lawmakers for hometown projects and distributing it to states for transportation projects — provided they spend it quickly.

For various reasons, the money has sat idle for nearly a decade. Now, according to the administration, the money should be spent to put people to work.

But the administration’s plan is running into opposition, most notably from a Californian: Republican Jerry Lewis, a master of pork-barrel politics who has unapologetically worked to bring home the bacon to show constituents in the Inland Empire that they were getting back some of the money they sent to Washington.

Lewis, a former House Appropriations Committee chairman, accused the administration of playing politics. And, he complained that the money — $43 million in California’s case — could end up going to the “bullet train,” state’s controversial high-speed rail project.

“The Obama administration has decided to play favorites once again on the eve of an election, announcing that they will take back funds from transportation projects that in some cases are even now under construction,’’ he said.

In announcing the “use it or lose it’’ policy Friday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, “Our infrastructure is crumbling. Across the nation, we have transportation needs that are unmet. We can't wait any longer. It's about time we put these idle funds to good use.’’

Lewis complained that the administration is changing long-standing policy without consulting Congress or local officials. In California, 71 projects risk losing funds, including nine in Lewis’ district, such as a new Colorado River crossing for Interstate 40 in Needles.

The fight is important because Congress put an end to earmarking after controversy over such projects as Alaska's “bridge to nowhere,’’ making it harder for lawmakers to steer money to pet projects.

States could still spend the money on the projects for which they were earmarked, but state officials must identify the projects they plan to fund by Oct. 1 and obligate the money by Dec. 31.

“We’re looking at this as a great opportunity to be able to shift funds to the ready-to-go projects that are needed the most,” Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco told the Los Angeles Times. He said that the agency will be consulting with local officials to identify projects, which include those for which funds had been earmarked.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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