JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Congressman Sam Graves, R-MO, visited Jefferson City Thursday to keynote the Missouri Chamber of Commerce’s Conference on Transportation. Graves served as the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Small Business for six years before terming out of the position. He now serves as Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, where he is hosting the federal transportation funding debate.
“We’ve got our our own funding issues in D.C.,” Graves told the conference attendees. “We have to figure out long-term funding proposals and how to fund transportation projects in the future.”
After the conference, Graves went more in-depth with the Missouri Times. Graves explained that due to increased automobile efficiency, less gas is being purchased, leading to less gas tax revenue coming in at the federal level requiring new proposals to be considered.
“A gas tax is no longer a true user fee,” Graves said. “We’re looking at a few different alternatives. Options like tolling, which I’m not a big fan of. We’re looking at vehicle miles traveled. Oregon does a version of that now. Basically, it’s the difference between the odometer reading this year versus next year. It’s a true indicator of wear. We’d like to make it so that its very reflective to get that revenue from those vehicles. It would be a much better system than the gas tax.”
The proposal would be determine tax amounts for citizens based on their own odometer, either paid annually or monthly. Graves said it would not be in addition to the federal gas tax, but in place of it.
“We’re going to open it up and let people submit their own ideas,” said Graves. “We want to be sure to keep the trust fund flush. Highways are a true trust fund. There are still two true trust funds: one is aviation, one is transportation with the gas tax dollars, or in this case, vehicle miles traveled. The dollars go into that trust fund and they stay there to be used for transportation projects. They cannot be siphoned off like everything else.”
Each state sees the trust fund dollars relative to the federal roads they work to maintain.
“Every state gets a portion of the dollars back that they pay in,” Graves said. “Missouri is pretty close to parity at getting back what they pay in. Some states like New York, California put more money in than they get back. Some states get a lot more back than they put in, for instance, Alaska. They get a lot a lot more back than they put in because they do not have the population to support the roads. All the money goes in and is distributed out. We’re pretty close to parity.”
In addition to the trust fund, Missouri will be seeing federal dollars from the new federal highway bill to the tune of $5 billion.
“This highway bill is going to mean $5 billion to the state of Missouri over that 5-year period, about a billion dollars a year, which is very good. Missouri used to be a much bigger donor state than it is now, but now we’re pretty close to parity.”
Last year saw scares over whether the state would be able to match the federal dollars for in-state projects, which was relieved at an unexpected boost in revenue.
“Right now, with projects, you have a federal proponent and a state, or local, proponent,” said Graves. “The federal government puts their portion in and the state has to put in whatever their match is, it may be a 10% match on one project or a 30% match on another. I know aviation projects, a lot of times, it is a local 10% match. Every state has to match whatever that percentage is. Counties, townships have their roads in their jurisdiction that they must maintain.”
A third federal transportation program Missouri sees is focused on bridges. Of the 10,400 bridges in Missouri, 641 are currently in critical condition. The majority of the critical bridges are in Graves’ district, which encompasses much of northern Missouri. His district alone is larger than 6 other states.
“The Off-System Bridge [Replacement and Rehabilitation] Program is very good to Missouri,” said Graves. “It’s called the BRO Program and it provides dollars for off-system bridges, in fact, 50% funding for those programs. We have so many dangerous bridges all across the nation, that’s the main reason it was created. Your counties can tap into that money and it’s a matching program.”
Before being elected to congress, Graves served in the state legislature, being elected to the House in 1992 and, after one term, to the senate in 1994. His early state tenure synchronized with some of Missouri’s early state transportation woes over two decades ago.
“Obviously, MoDOT is going through some transitions and changes – they’re scaling back, moving more into the tradition of design as opposed to actual building and construction, which I think is a good thing,” Graves said. “There has been a lot of credibility problems with MoDOT in the past. They promised projects, then they’d come up with a new proposal and it was the same projects they were promising in the old proposal. I remember Proposition B way back when, I think it was in “92, “93, I don’t remember exactly, but it had some of the same projects they had proposed in the last year’s project. That hurts them.
“We’ve got some new leadership in MoDOT now and they’re looking at ways to save money and capitalize on what they’re going to get from the federal government. They’re debating in the legislature some of the things that were debated in this conference, some of the proposals out there to come up with the state’s proportion. We’ll see what happens.”
Graves emphasized that similar to Missouri, the federal government is exploring a variety of funding options for transportation.
“Everything is on the table.”
Rachael Herndon was the editor at The Missouri Times and also produced This Week in Missouri Politics, published Missouri Times Magazine, and co-hosted the #MoLeg podcast. She joined The Missouri Times in 2014, returning to political reporting after working as a campaign and legislative staffer.
Rachael studied at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She lives in Jefferson City with her husband, Brandon, and their two children.