Unspent money should pay for new projects, Inspector General says

| 4/15/2004

Some call it mattress money.

It’s loot that is, well, just kind of hanging around – but bureaucrats have another term for nearly $400 million in unspent transportation funds from years past – they call it “inactive obligations.”

In a recent audit, the DOT’s Office of the Inspector General noted the Federal Highway Administration has at least $284 million — and maybe up to $400 million — in unused funds that should be reallocated to transportation projects where the funds will be used.

FHWA should take “more aggressive steps” to account for allocated funds so they are not left idle, the report said.

“In today’s tight budget environment, when highway investment needs exceed available resources, allowing unneeded obligations to sit idle on highway projects leaves fewer funds available for expanding and preserving National Highway System infrastructure, increasing mobility and improving safety – all key FHWA performance goals.”

FHWA Administrator Mary Peters responded with a memorandum saying the issue “has been an emphasis with the FHWA during the past few years.”

However, the Inspector General’s audit said, “This is the third time in six years we have identified deficiencies in FHWA’s process to free up idle funds and hundreds of millions of dollars of unneeded obligations.

“Prior agreements by FHWA to correct the problem have not succeeded because it has not made a commitment to aggressively tackle the problem. Until it does so, little improvement can be expected.”

Some report findings

The following are examples of funds allowed to sit idle:

One canceled project involved a $28 million to build a large parking garage adjacent to a station at the end of a subway line. However, no funds were spent for the project. That’s because it was no longer needed because the subway line was extended by four additional stations.

Another completed project involved $4.9 million for highway reconstruction and maintenance, with the last expenditure to be made in February 2001. The project was completed in May 2002 for about $2 million. State official said they would use the remaining $2.9 million for other projects.

Meanwhile, DOT’s audit recommended a review of inactive obligations in 35 other states with idle funds in excess of $1 million. In addition, FHWA officials should work more closely with state officials to identify such funds and make sure they’re used for other needed projects, the report said.