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Federal Dollars Wasted: RI Fails to Spend $66 Million

Monday, December 05, 2011


More than $66 million in taxpayer funds dedicated to transportation projects ranging from the rebuilding of bridges and roads to the creation of bike paths currently sits untouched, leading some critics to demand an explanation from the state.

The federal dollars, which were directed to the state through earmarks from members of the Congressional Delegation, were intended for dozens of projects across the state. But because there was never any timeframe on when the funds had to be used, some of the money has been sitting idle for several years.

Now, with earmark spending in Washington at a standstill and Congress searching for ways to tighten its belt, the state’s Department of Transportation (DOT) is saying there is a heightened sense of urgency to finally use the funds so no money is lost. In fact, DOT spokesman Charles St. Martin said the department has already cut the available cash in half since January, when USA Today ran a report that said Rhode Island had more untouched earmark money than 22 other states, including New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont. The total amount among all states was close to $7.5 billion.

The report cited September 2010 figures and pegged the Ocean State with $100 million in unused funds, but St. Martin said that number ballooned to $124 by January of this year. As of last week, the amount sitting idle was still $66.4 million.

No Expiration Date

According to Robert Smith, a Deputy Chief Engineer at the DOT, there are several reasons that millions in taxpayer dollars have gone unused over the years. Smith cautioned that hundreds of millions have been used for various projects, but said that in some instances, a lack of direction for a project or lack of manpower can cause money to be held up.

“The reason [for funds going unused] is this money is usually targeted for a particular project and it’s not like these projects are necessarily design ready,” Smith said. “You don't want to waste money designing something and find out you don’t have the money to build it.”

In other cases, Smith said, priorities come into to play. Projects like rebuilding a bridge or repairing a highway tend to take precedence over creating more bike paths, he said. And because it was always believed that the money could be used at any time, some projects were put off.

“Since there was no expiration date on the money, we really hadn't proceeded [with some projects],” Smith said. “Knowing there's no expiration date, we may focus on a bridge [and] try to work on these projects with our other priorities.”

A Failure to Utilize Taxpayer Money

But Lisa Blais, who heads up the Ocean State Tea Party in Action, said the decision to not use millions of dollars that could benefit the state is simply another example of mismanagement in Rhode Island. As an example, Blais pointed to a tiny bridge near the Agawam Country Club in East Providence that remains under construction.

“It is one small and aggravating example of the failure to utilize taxpayers' money intended for efficient repair of our roadways,” Blais said. “This particular section of road has been left undone for longer than most folks might remember.”

Blais said she is concerned that the funds are only beginning to be used now that earmark funding has dried up and Congress is taking a closer look at where it allocates money.

“It seems that we mismanage well in RI and only under threat of losing funding do we pay attention and even then we repeat this cycle of ineptitude until the next threat comes along,” she said.

Taxpayers Deserve Honest Answer

According to Legistorm.com, Rhode Island received nearly $105 million in earmarked funds during the 2010 fiscal year. The majority of that money went to military and defense-related projects, but several million dollars were allocated to transportation projects, including over $2.2 million for the Pawtucket River Bridge.

State Representative Doreen Costa said she believes any money earmarked for roads and bridges should be used for those purposes. She said she plans to contact the DOT to “find out why they have been sitting on this on this money.”

“The roads are horrible, pot holes still everywhere,” Costa said. “I just met a girl in Tarbox last week that was having her car fixed because of a pot hole. The tax payers deserve an honest answer. This is why I am against earmarks. The money goes to states and there is no accountability how they use it.”

Costa said she believes that money that goes unused for certain projects should be returned to state to help address the deficit.

“If the money is not used it should go back to the tax payers in the general fund to help the deficit that we seem to have every year. Maybe then we will be able to balance the budget without raising taxes. The people of Rhode Island work too hard and deserve an answer.”

Must Have a Plan

The state intends to spend the rest of the $66.4 million by next September, and Smith acknowledged a need to speed up spending just in case any unused money is taken away by the feds, as has been rumored.

Smith also said the DOT is racing to come up with a plan for the future, especially if less money is allocated toward the state (in FY 2011, 75.7 percent of DOT funding came from the feds).

“It sounds like we are not going to get these kinds of allocations in the future,” Smith said. “Now all states are trying to come up with a plan.”


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