They’re baaaaaaaaaack – Earmarks that is

Late last week, House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) announced a process for bringing back congressional directed funding, also known as earmarks. Additionally, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) disseminated a “Dear Colleague” letter to members of Congress indicating his plan to include earmarks in the upcoming highway bill, which is expected to be part of a larger House infrastructure package.

Earmarks are projects that receive some level of federal funding for state and local projects in congressional districts. They differ from competitive grant programs in that competitive grants are applied for and decided by staff at the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), whereas earmarks are advocated for by interested parties and members of Congress decide if they want to include them in a particular legislative vehicle.

Because of an extremely bloated earmark process in the 2005 surface transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU (think “Bridge to Nowhere” and “dinosaur museums”), Congress opted to ban earmarks starting in 2011. Since then, there have been occasional rumors that they may return; however, DeLauro’s and DeFazio’s announcements mark the first time there has been this serious of an effort.

How will this impact ATSSA members? ATSSA Vice President of Engagement Nate Smith said he didn’t expect safety-specific projects to be included in the tranche of earmarks but it’s likely that projects will have safety infrastructure implications.

As an example, Smith said that rather than a project to upgrade signage along a stretch of road, the project might be rehabilitating a dangerous interstate on-ramp that might include guardrail, signage, high friction surface treatment and pavement markings, as well as asphalt replacement. He said that remains to be seen since it’s so early in the new process.

DeFazio’s statement indicated there are early criteria for projects to eligible: projects will likely have to be on the STIP (State, Tribal or Territorial Transportation Improvement Program) or TIP (metropolitan transportation improvement program), include sources of funding beyond the federal portion, have letters of support, project phase, NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) category, and a certification that the member of Congress and his or her family will not benefit financially from the project.

Check back for updates, which will be provided as the process becomes more formalized and its impacts on the roadway safety infrastructure industry emerge.

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