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February 22, 2017 9:55 AM, EST

Unused Congressional Pork Funneled to Ohio Transportation Projects

Ohio DOT

Taking a ferry from Cleveland to Ontario might have been fun. Congress provided millions of dollars for what was and still is a dream.

Despite all the planning, a willing Canadian partner never stepped forward, and $8.6 million in federal tax dollars was never spent. Now with a nod from Congress, the Ohio Department of Transportation is redirecting that money — and other unspent federal money — to other transportation projects.

A big chunk of Lake Erie ferry money, for example, will go to improve gates, roads and bulkheads at the Port of Cleveland, according to ODOT and the port.

Money that was dedicated for a trail leading from Fairview Park to the Cleveland Metroparks, before the topography proved to be too difficult, now will go for streetscape improvements on nearby Lorain Road.

ODOT released the list of $35.3 million in "repurposed earmarks" Feb. 21, after spending months figuring out how to spend the money that never was used as intended, then getting federal approval for new uses.

Pork Defined:

An earmark, also known as a pork-barrel project, is a home-district project for which a member of Congress got taxpayer money. Before congressional spending reforms, members could get earmarks for all manner of pet projects, from local theater marquees to road upgrades, without needing to justify them in hearings. That changed in 2010. Earmarks were not banned outright, but the process became more transparent.

It turns out that a number of earmarks from earlier times was never spent. Planning might have shown the project just wasn't feasible. Other sources of money, such as state funds, might have surfaced. A city might have changed its mind. Sometimes, projects cost less than expected.

The money was already approved for a specific purpose, so by law it couldn't just be diverted elsewhere. So there were billions in unspent "orphan earmarks," a USA Today examination found in 2011, even as cities, counties and states were begging Congress for more money for other projects.

In late 2015, Congress told states to come up with new uses for their transportation-related orphan earmarks. If the money wasn't used for new, federally approved purposes by the end of fiscal year 2019, it would have to be returned to the federal treasury.

That's what the new list is about: ODOT, with input from local communities and members of Congress, has its list of new, approved uses for orphan-earmark money.

Managing to Keep It:

This is good news for those getting the money. The Port of Cleveland's ability to use $6.97 million of its $8.6 in unspent ferry money will go for "work that needed to be done" and can help keep shipping jobs in the community, said Jade Davis, the port's vice president of external affairs.

But it also means some neighboring jurisdictions come up empty. Some had hoped to persuade transportation officials that they had projects equally deserving.

Lakewood, for example, was among many communities that had unfunded road projects and would have liked permission to use some of the orphan money from another jurisdiction — in this case, a little bit of the port's ferry money, since there will be no ferry.

"We got none of it," said Lakewood Mayor Mike Summers. Those sitting on the unspent money found convincing ways to keep it for their own uses.

ODOT confirmed that most of the money earmarked for a specific community stayed in that community, even though it went to a different project. An exact community-by-community comparison of original earmarks with the newest uses was not immediately possible Feb. 21, because of limitations in the way ODOT presented the data and the project descriptions.

ODOT spokesman Matt Bruning confirmed that "we wanted to keep it as close as we could so we weren't taking money that had been earmarked for Geauga County, for example, and spending it in Lawrence County."

Summers sounded upbeat, even if disappointed that Lakewood lost out.

"I assume they were all spent on good projects," he said of the earmarks. "And it's good to see that Congress did its oversight job."

Some of the new uses include $6.97 million for improvements at the Cleveland port, $583,259 for reconstruction of Erie Street in Willoughby and $255,156 for Lorain Road streetscaping in Fairview Park.

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