Biden sits down with Kansas City area reps to discuss massive infrastructure plan

March 4, 2021
In The News

President Joe Biden sat down with two Kansas City area lawmakers Thursday to discuss what will likely be his next major proposal: A massive infrastructure bill.

Kansas Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids and Missouri Republican Rep. Sam Graves were among a group of eight lawmakers who met with Biden in the Oval Office to discuss a future infrastructure plan.

The bipartisan group is on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the panel which will weigh the eventual bill. Graves is the ranking Republican on the committee, while Davids was appointed vice chair this year.

Former President Donald Trump repeatedly promised a major infrastructure plan throughout his four years as presidency, but the legislation failed to move forward. His frequent declarations of “Infrastructure Week,” which were inevitably upended by some tweet-related flap or scandal news, became a punchline in Washington.

Biden’s best chance of avoiding a similar fate for his own infrastructure plan is to pass it while his party controls both chambers of Congress. Thursday’s hour-long meeting was the first step in that process. Vice President Kamala Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg joined Biden for the congressional charm offensive.

 

Davids told The Star last month that she’s optimistic the long-awaited infrastructure package will move forward within Biden’s first year in office.

“We’re still in the middle of this— the pandemic, a public health crisis as well as an economic crisis— and that’s going to shape the priorities we have. But we’re also poised to make some meaningful and long-lasting investments in infrastructure,” said Davids, who worked at the Department of Transportation as a 2016 White House fellow.

“We got ourselves out of the Great Depression by investing in infrastructure,” she said in February.

Davids noted at the time that her status as the Kansas’ delegation’s sole Democrat would give the opportunity to have sway over legislation and to bring the state’s priorities to the attention of Biden’s administration.

One of the most pressing infrastructure needs in Davids’ 3rd Congressional District is the proposed expansion of Highway 69, the most congested four-lane highway in the state.

“We’ve talked to Sharice Davids for a couple of years now, and it’s important that we continue to get emphasis put on U.S. 69 highway,” Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach told The Star last month.

The Kansas Department of Transportation is studying widening the highway from four lanes to six between 103rd to 179th streets, a $550 million project that could require the addition of tolls.

“I hope that the federal government can fund most of it— enough so we don’t have to put a toll lane on it. But the problem is we can’t wait another 10 years to see if the funding comes through. We need to do something immediately,” Gerlach said. “If we wait, I think that’ll be a disaster from a safety standpoint.”

Davids brought up the project to the president as an example of Kansas City’s infrastructure needs.

Other issues she raised included ensuring equity in infrastructure in under-served communities, including Wyandotte County, according to her office.

The presence of Graves and three other Republicans at the Oval Office meeting suggests Biden will seek to craft a bipartisan package. Graves has long called for an infrastructure bill.

But finding consensus on cost levels could be difficult.

“First and foremost, a highway bill cannot grow into a multi-trillion dollar catch-all bill, or it will lose Republican support,” Graves warned in a statement after the meeting. “We have to be responsible, and a bill whose cost is not offset will lose Republican support.”

“He wants to move as quickly as possible,” Rep. Peter DeFazio, the Oregon Democrat who chairs the committee, told reporters after the meeting. “He wants it to be very big and he feels that this is the key to the recovery package.”

The Oval Office meeting comes a week after the House passed Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan without a single Republican vote. The COVID-19 bill, which includes $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, is now before the U.S. Senate, where the Kansas City’s region’s GOP senators have blasted its spending.

“This package is so full of pork it smells like bacon and now it’s dripping grease,” said Kansas Republican Sen. Roger Marshall said Wednesday.

An infrastructure package is likely to face similar accusations, especially as House leaders bring back earmarks, a system which enables lawmakers to steer money toward specific projects.

Graves has repeatedly called for the earmark system to be restored, a minority position among Republicans. It’ll enable him to steer money back to Missouri, if he’s willing to work across the aisle.

Graves’ office did not respond to a question about what Missouri infrastructure needs he would bring to Biden’s attention ahead of the meeting, but in a statement later that day he stressed the importance of steering resources to rural communities.

“Rural infrastructure needs cannot be left behind, and we cannot continue to allow a growing disparity between resources provided to urban and rural communities,” Graves said.

Missouri has long struggled to maintain its highways. Gov. Mike Parson’s pitch to voters to raise the gas tax in 2018 to improve the highway system fell flat. Federal money could help.

The City Council voted 11-2 on Thursday to move forward with the design of a new downtown parking garage to serve the Kansas City Convention Center and area tourism.

Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, who sponsored the legislation, urged colleagues to move forward with the design in the hopes there would be federal infrastructure funds available for it.

Some council members expressed concern about moving forward with the project when the city has not identified a way to pay for the construction of the garage. The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority will pay for the $1.3 million in design and consulting expenses, and in exchange, the project would included updated transit stops.

The current garage, which sits below Barney Allis Plaza, is twice as old as its life expectancy and has severe structural problems. Last year, the council spent $1.5 million to repair the ventilation system so that carbon monoxide wouldn’t build up when cars idle in the garage.

Ron Achelpohl, MARC’s director of transportation and environment, said regional leaders are pushing for a multi-year federal infrastructure bill with greater investments made toward alternative technology and environmental sustainability.

“The signs are positive right now, but it’s sort of hard to predict. There was also a lot of interest in infrastructure with the prior administration,” Achelpohl said.

“We’re really encouraged by signs that climate change and climate adaptation issues may become a bigger part of the federal government’s thinking about infrastructure,” he added.