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New U.S. House Transportation Committee Chair Sam Graves wants to aid I-70 expansion

Congressman Sam Graves recently became chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Courtesy of Congressman Sam Graves' office
Congressman Sam Graves recently became chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Congressman Sam Graves, who recently became chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is hoping Missouri gets a boost from his leadership position.

Graves, R-Tarkio, represents the sprawling 6th Congressional District that essentially covers all of northern Missouri. And since the committee has jurisdiction over a wide range of transportation issues, Graves expects both the state and the district to see tangible benefits.

“We have jurisdiction over every mode of transportation out there, whether that's roads and bridges, highways, pipelines, rail, waterways, ports, aviation — you name it,” Graves said. “So obviously, it's going to give the district and the State of Missouri more influence 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.

Gov. Mike Parson is welcomed by legislators on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, during the State of the State address at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Mike Parson is greeted by legislators on Jan. 18, when he delivered his State of the State address at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.

The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Jason Rosenbaum: Gov. Mike Parson announced in his State of the State speech that he wants to devote close to $900 million to widen parts of I-70. Could there be some 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 now to visit with me about that project. And he had mentioned that he was going to put that in his State of the State address. And I'm absolutely going to do everything I can.

The interstate system is obviously the federal system. There's a lot of federal dollars that go into that. There's a lot of grant dollars. And there's also a lot of matching dollars. So we're in the process right now of looking into every avenue we can possibly find to be able to find dollars to make I-70 more safe and to add those lanes.

We've been talking about widening I-70 for years in the state of Missouri. And it looks like the governor is really getting behind it — and he's obviously putting money where it needs to be.

A Red line train rolls into MetroLink’s Grand Station on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A Red line train rolls into MetroLink’s Grand Station last year.

Rosenbaum: I noticed on social media during the governor’s speech a lot of people questioned whether spending money to widen I-70 was a better use of money than, say, increasing public transportation funding. I’m sure that’s part of the discourse on the Transportation Committee. What’s going to be your philosophy if that type of give-and-take occurs?

Graves: Well, you got two different silos. You've got mass transit and public transit dollars. And that's what they go towards. And then you got dollars specifically earmarked for the interstate system.

People traveling across this country are using I-70 or using I-80, or whatever the big interstates are that go from east to west. Those are heavy priorities for both not only for just people, but for everything that moves. All the products that move — it may go by train or it may go by plane. But sooner or later, it's gonna go by truck. It’s got to get to the end user by truck. And that's down our highways. And we want to make sure that those are as safe as they can be.

And to be quite honest with you, public transit gets a lot of money from the federal government. And we need to make sure that 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’s going to be your reaction if members of your caucus want to cut transportation spending?

Graves: The thing about transportation is we still have true trust funds. Whether that’s the highway trust fund. We’ve got the inland waterways trust fund. We’ve got the harbor maintenance trust fund. We’ve got the aviation trust fund. Those are all trust funds that are funded through user fees. The highway trust fund, for instance, is specifically used to fund our surface transportation reauthorization that we do every four to five years.

The problem we get into is, for example, the infrastructure bill that the president rammed through, it didn’t stay within the bookmarks of what those dollars are. We went way outside, and we’re borrowing money from general revenue. And so, if that’s the case of what people are talking about, we do need to get back inside our means. Pay as you go. It’s always been that way in transportation. It’s always funded itself. And again, it’s a user fee program.

Rosenbaum: I guess the issue is if you wanted to keep the amount of money for transportation projects, but have it paid for, you would have to raise user fees. You would have to 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 maneuver through this desire to make sure everything is paid for without making it too burdensome for everyday consumers?

Graves: The biggest problem we have right now isn't what the rate of the user fees are. It's that we have so many vehicles on the road that aren't paying for it. Electric vehicles or any alternative fuel vehicle … are not paying for the use of the road. And we need to be recovering those dollars. And so we're losing a lot of revenue through that. So we have to make sure that everybody is paying their share in terms of the use of those roads. And so that's where we're going to concentrate first.

Rosenbaum: How do you get anything done over the next two years with a divided Congress and a House Republican caucus with major divisions? Is it possible transportation policy could have more bipartisan consensus?

Graves: One of my absolute goals is to go back to that bipartisan tradition, and we work with other members. We're going to be a work committee. We're not going to be a show committee. We’re not going to have all the cameras in there and doing all of the fanfare like the Oversight Committee or the Judiciary Committee is going to be doing. We’re going to have to get these reauthorizations done. You have a better product when you work with both sides and when you ask for that input.

You know, give me your ideas. Let's come to a compromise. Let's figure out what the middle ground is. Let's find out where we agree first. And we start working on a little bit harder stuff. And then we work on the hardest stuff.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.