Nightly News   |  January 04, 2011

Money for nothing: Billions lost in earmarks black hole

While many members of the incoming congress have made it clear they want to do away with earmarks, an NBC News/USA Today investigation has found that billions of dollars allocated for those projects over the past 20 years have gone unspent. NBC's Tom Costello reports.

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BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We're back on this Tuesday night with more on those newcomers and returning members of the incoming Congress . Many have been very public about wanting to do away with what are called earmarks. That's how members of Congress tack on spending projects for pet projects back home, like highways and bridges and air fields. Tonight a new NBC News / USA Today investigation has found billions of dollars set aside for those projects over the past two decades that hasn't even been spent. They're tax dollars that are just sitting there unused. Our report tonight from NBC 's Tom Costello .

TOM COSTELLO reporting: For nearly a hundred years it stood just down the road from the Pittsburgh zoo . Crumbling, patched-up and rusted, the Heth 's Run Bridge buckles under the weight of the 13,000 cars that cross it every day.

Mr. BRUNO DIDIANO (Pittsburgh Motorist): I try not to think about it. If my number's up, it's up, I guess.

COSTELLO: Just one of 4500 Pennsylvania bridges in desperate need of repair but not designated for renovation. For years Congress has earmarked billions of dollars for highway projects , but an NBC News / USA Today investigation has found that many have become orphaned earmarks. Money that's never been used because of red tape, canceled projects , even typos.

Mr. GREGORY KORTE (USA Today): Right now it's -- it remains unspent and it's money that the states then can't use to do the highway priorities that they might have in their state.

COSTELLO: In Indiana , Congress set aside $375,000 13 years ago to improve State Road 31 . But there is no State Road 31 , only US 31 . A simple mistake, but for 13 years the money has just sat there. A USA Today analysis has found more than 7300 congressionally directed highway projects with many going nowhere fast, a total of $13 billion set aside for those projects remains unspent. And because many earmarks are deducted from a state's share of federal highway money, cash strapped states have lost at least $7 1/2 billion over the past 20 years. Money states could have used on road and bridge repair. Pennsylvania alone lost nearly $400 million in an earmarks black hole the outgoing governor says Congress must fix.

Governor ED RENDELL (Democrat, Pennsylvania): The money should be, essentially, use it or lose it. You've got a two year period. If you don't use it, it comes -- reverts back to the federal treasury.

COSTELLO: Thirteen billion dollars set aside yet never used, with the nation's highways and bridges desperate for some TLC . Tom Costello , NBC News , Washington .

WILLIAMS: We want to let you know there's a lot more on all of this, including more on the states that are missing out on the most highway money. It's at, also in tomorrow's edition of the newspaper.