GOVERNMENT & POLITICS Davids, Cleaver seeking federal dollars for U.S. 69, electric buses through earmarks

April 27, 2021
In The News

Kansas City area lawmakers are hoping to steer millions in federal money to the region for a fleet of electric buses and improved traffic flow on one of Kansas’ most congested highways as Congress revives earmark requests — a practice halted a decade ago amid a backlash against government spending.

 

Kansas Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids and Missouri Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver Tuesday submitted a pair of requests for federal aid for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority to purchase zero fare electric buses that would serve both sides of the state line.

 

Cleaver asked for $6 million, which his office said his requested funding would support acquisition of up to seven additional electric buses on top of the two KCATA currently operates. Davids asked for $4.5 million the KCATA.

 

“By investing in good public transit that certainly helps folks from all sorts of backgrounds,” Davids told The Star last week. “This is the kind of thing that can help a lot of people just live their lives.”

 

Davids serves as vice chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the panel that will vet this and other requests for earmarked spending in a transportation reauthorization bill that Congress must pass by Sept. 30 before funding for federal highways expires.

 

Earmarking, the practice of lawmakers steering federal funds toward pet projects, was long decried as wasteful and corrupt by fiscal conservatives who attacked so-called bridges to nowhere and other pork barrel projects. Congress effectively banned the practice after the 2010 wave of new anti-tax, anti-spending Tea Party members gained sway in the GOP.

 

Defenders of earmarks say their elimination shifted power over trillions in discretionary federal spending from elected representatives to agency bureaucrats and removed an essential tool for brokering compromise.

 

With Democrats in charge of both chambers of Congress for the first time in a decade, earmarks have returned. Even House Republicans have joined the majority party in lifting their ban on the practice.

 

The earmarks revival gives Davids’ a major opportunity to bring federal dollars to her district ahead of what promises to be a tough 2022 re-election campaign. It’s no surprise that the biggest item on her list is related to the long-gestating proposal to expand U.S. Route 69 in Overland Park.

 

“We’ve been hearing about Highway 69 for a long time. My predecessor worked on it. This is the type of project that has broad support… It’s the kind of project that would keep people safe, obviously reduce congestion and bring good-paying jobs,” Davids told The Star last week. “I think it’s a huge impact for the area.”

 

U.S. 69 AND OTHER PROJECTS

The Overland Park stretch of U.S. 69 is the most congested four-lane highway in the state, according to a traffic analysis, and officials only expect longer backups as more people move to southern Johnson County.

 

The Kansas Department of Transportation and the city of Overland Park are planning to widen U.S. 69 to six lanes from 103rd Street, north of Interstate 435, south to 179th Street.

 

Davids’ $15 million earmark request for KDOT covers a portion of the project to improve the interchange at 167th st.

 

“We’re excited about this opportunity Congresswoman Davids is presenting for us, and we really hope that can come to fruition,” said Lindsey Douglas, deputy secretary at the Kansas Department of Transportation who estimated the cost of the proposed interchange improvement at $30 million.

 

Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach said improvements at the interchange of U.S. 69 and 167th Street would better serve the new AdventHealth South Overland Park hospital, expected to be completed later this year.

 

The hospital, at 165th Street and Antioch Road, sits within the Bluhawk development, a growing retail and mixed-use site. A major multi-sports complex also is planned for the site off of U.S. 69.

 

“It’s a very important project for the future and development of Overland Park,” Gerlach said.

 

Davids’ request won’t negate the potential need for toll lanes to pay for the full $550 million expansion to six lanes. But President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal — which is separate from the transportation reauthorization bill — could free up additional money for expansion if it moves forward.

 

Davids has also requested $7.6 million for the United Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, to improve the intersection of Hutton Road and Leavenworth Road.

 

In addition to the electric buses, Cleaver’s transportation earmark requests include $3.1 million for a new bridge over the Union Pacific Railroad in Lawson, Missouri, and $6 million for a pedestrian plaza in Kansas City’s Jazz District.

 

Both lawmakers will be submitting additional earmark requests in the coming days to other committees. Davids has crafted funding requests for programs at Johnson County Community College and Kansas City Kansas Community College, which will go through the House Appropriations Committee.

 

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver among bipartisan group of lawmakers who met with President Biden to discuss the administration’s infrastructure plan. The president told reporters he is prepared to compromise on the proposal. BY C-SPAN

 

SOME REPUBLICANS WILL SIT OUT OF PROCESS

Cleaver said he’s been working closely with Missouri Republican Rep. Sam Graves, the top Republican on the House Transportation Committee who represents the Northland, and Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt on his requests.

 

Senate Republicans kept their ban on earmarks at a conference meeting last week after Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley and others objected to lifting it.

 

The rule is non-binding, so it doesn’t preclude Blunt from moving forward with earmark requests if he chooses. A day before the meeting, Blunt said it would be foolish for Senate Republicans to sit out of the process.

 

“If House Republicans and House Democrats are going to earmark, and if Senate Democrats are going to earmark, I expect I’ll be part of that process and do my best to represent Missouri,” said Blunt, who won’t seek re-election next year.

 

But the politics of earmarks remain tricky for Republicans, who traditionally rail against federal spending. Graves, who has long called for the reinstatement of earmarks, declined to answer a question about them at the Capitol last week.

 

Other House Republicans from the region said they would abstain, including Missouri Republican Rep. Jason Smith, the top Republican on the House Budget Committee and one several lawmakers contemplating a 2022 run for Blunt’s seat.

 

“I don’t have faith that the Democrats are going to put a good organization in the process… Right now, what they have before us is not a fair process,” Smith said.

 

Missouri Republican Rep. Ann Wagner, another potential Senate contender, also said she wouldn’t offer any earmarks.

 

“I’m happy to advocate for funding for my state, especially in the area of infrastructure, but I am not in favor of earmarks and in conference did not support that path going forward,” Wagner said.

 

Freshman Kansas Republican Rep. Jake LaTurner said he had received earmark requests from stakeholders in his district, but that he would not participate in the process this year. He left the door open to participating in the future.

 

“The Democrats haven’t allowed much time for vetting,” LaTurner said.

 

“I’m not inclined to do it, period. We’re not going to do it this year,” he added. “But we will take another look next year.”

 

This story has been updated to clarify the dollar figures for Rep. Emanuel Cleaver’s request on behalf of the KCATA. Cleaver has requested $6 million, while Rep. Sharice Davids has requested $4.5 million.​