Congressman Sam Graves, who recently became chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, hopes Missouri gets a boost from his leadership position.
Graves, R-Tarkio represents the large 6th congressional district covering essentially all of northern Missouri. And because the committee has jurisdiction over a wide range of transportation matters, Graves expects both the state and the district to see tangible benefits.
“We have jurisdiction over every mode of transportation out there, whether it’s roads and bridges, highways, pipelines, railroads, waterways, ports, aviation — you name it,” Graves said. “So obviously it’s going to give the District and the State of Missouri more leverage when it comes to grants and dollars for those different projects.”
Graves discussed his expectations and goals for the Transportation Committee earlier this week with St. Louis Public Radio’s Jason Rosenbaum.
The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Jason Rosenbaum: Gov. Mike Parson announced in his state of the state address that he wants to devote nearly $900 million to widening parts of I-70. Could there be any federal help to push this project beyond Kansas City, Columbia and St. Louis?
Sam Graves: Yes, absolutely. The governor called me almost a month ago to visit me regarding that project. And he said he was going to put that in his State of the State address. And I will do absolutely everything I can.
The interstate system is obviously the federal system. There’s a lot of federal dollars that go into this. There are a lot of dollar grants. And there are a lot of corresponding dollars too. So right now we’re looking at every street we can find to be able to find dollars to make I-70 safer and to add those lanes.
We’ve been talking about widening I-70 in the state of Missouri for years. And it seems like the governor is really backing that up — and obviously putting the money where it needs to be.
Rosenbaum: I noticed on social media during the governor’s speech that many people were wondering if spending money on expanding I-70 was a better use of the money than, say, increasing funding for public transportation. I’m sure that’s part of the talk about the Committee on Transport. What will your philosophy be if that kind of give and take occurs?
Graves: Well, you have two different silos. You have mass transit and transit dollars. And that’s where they go. And then you have dollars specifically earmarked for the interstate system.
People traveling to this country use I-70 or I-80, or whatever major highway that runs from east to west. These are heavy priorities for both of us not just for people but for everything that moves. All products that move: they can go by train or by plane. But sooner or later it will go by truck. It must reach the end user by truck. And this is along our highways. And we want to make sure they are as secure as possible.
And to be honest with you, public transit gets a lot of money from the federal government. And we need to make sure we have other priorities as well.
Rosenbaum: One of the subplots of the highly publicized battle to elect Kevin McCarthy Speaker of the House was that a segment of the Republican caucus wants spending cuts. What will be your reaction if members of your caucus want to cut transportation costs?
Graves: The problem with transportation is that we still have real trust funds. Whether it’s the highway trust fund. We have the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. We have the Port Maintenance Trust Fund. We have the aviation trust fund. These are all trust funds that are funded through user fees. The highway trust fund, for example, is being used specifically to fund our new surface transit permit that we do every four to five years.
The problem that we get into is, for example, the infrastructure bill that the president rammed, it’s not bookmarked what those dollars are. We’ve gone a lot out there and we’re borrowing money from general revenue. And so, if that’s the case that people are talking about, we have to get within our means. Pay as you go. It’s always been like this in transportation. It always finances itself. And again, it is a paid program.
Rosenbaum: I guess the issue is if you want to keep the amount of money for transportation projects, but if you paid for it, you should increase user rates. You should raise things like gas and diesel taxes, which I’m sure a lot of people don’t really want right now. So how do you manage this desire to make sure everything is paid for without making it too much of a burden for everyday consumers?
Graves: The biggest problem we have right now is not what the rate of user fees is. It’s that we have so many vehicles on the road that aren’t paying for it. Electric vehicles or any alternative fuel vehicle…they don’t pay for the use of the road. And we have to get those dollars back. And so we’re losing a lot of revenue to that. So we have to make sure that everyone pays their share in terms of using those roads. And so that’s where we’ll focus first.
Rosenbaum: How do you get anything done in the next couple of years with a divided Congress and a big divisive House Republican caucus? Is it possible that transport policy could have a more bipartisan consensus?
Graves: One of my absolute goals is to get back to that bipartisan tradition and let’s work with other members. We will become a working committee. We will not be a show committee. We won’t have all the cameras in there and we will make all the fuss like the Supervisory Committee or the Judiciary Committee will. We will have to get these new permissions. You have a better product when you work with both parties and when you ask for that input.
You know, give me your ideas. We come to a compromise. Let’s find out what the middle ground is. Let’s find out where we agree first. And we start working on things that are a little more difficult. And then we work on the more difficult things.