Rep. Garret Graves says the nearly $1 billion earmark he requested for a bridge in his Louisiana congressional district is hardly a bridge to nowhere. But without a reliable federal partner, it may as well be.
The Louisiana Republican’s ask for a major new bridge over the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge as part of Interstate 10 was the costliest of the $14.9 billion in earmark requests for the yet-to-be-written House surface transportation authorization bill.
Graves, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in an interview he knew his request would draw attention. But he also knew it would make a point or two.
The first point echoes a common theme in Republican arguments against President Joe Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which proposes spending over and above the authorization bill: Roads and highways meet the definition of infrastructure, they say, but much of what is in Biden’s plan — health care, education, research and development — does not.
“Why would you go and grossly expand your definition of infrastructure if you’re completely failing at the areas of infrastructure that are at the core: roads, bridges, airports, transit and even ports and waterways?” he asked.
“This was designed to prompt a discussion,” he said.
Second, Graves said he’s frustrated that the federal government has so consistently underinvested in its infrastructure programs, and that federal dollars are best spent actually finishing projects rather than spreading them thinly among a wide range of them.
They should focus, he said, on projects with national implications, and lawmakers should be able to justify their requests by demonstrating a federal nexus.
“The reality is the federal government throws a nickel at every $10 problem across the country, thereby doing incremental advancing of projects without ever actually finishing things,” he said. “This bridge should’ve been done 30 years ago.”
Graves' earmark request seeks nearly $956 million. That includes $1.6 million for environmental evaluation, $8 million for project design and $945.6 million for construction.
Adam Knapp, president of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said the total project costs are closer to between $1.3 billion and $1.5 billion, with the state and city willing to pay the balance.
“This would be a beautiful model of an 80-20 (federal/state and local) split,” Knapp said. “It’s just we don’t have 80-20 projects anymore.”
It’s a large request for a lawmaker who in March voted against restoring earmarks in Republican Conference rules because, he said at the time, he did not think the process would be adequately transparent.
“I’m participating in it,” he now says, “because the money is going to be given away and it’s either us or the Biden administration.”
Graves’ request far exceeds the $15 million to $20 million that House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., indicated he wanted to allocate per member of Congress.
He said the project he’s requesting money for is of national importance, a second bridge to carry Interstate 10 — which runs from Florida to California — over the Mississippi River. The existing span, he said, is “one of the worst bottlenecks in America.”
Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a taxpayer watchdog group, said Graves’ bridge would be the equivalent of “four bridges to nowhere,” and questioned Graves’ assertion that the project had national implications.
“I can’t say I’ve ever read a news story about a bridge preventing driving from Florida to California,” he said. “I would think most people would get on a plane.”
The request, Schatz said, runs the risk of “taking away money from another part of the country that may be more in need of those funds.”
He said Graves’ request would easily qualify as the largest transportation earmark since the organization began tracking earmarks in 1991.
But Baton Rouge leaders say a new bridge is the only solution to their bottleneck and there simply aren’t enough state and local dollars to pay for it.
Because the Mississippi River is so wide, Knapp said, the bridge “is perversely expensive.”
“There’s no getting around fact that it will take a ton of federal support” to get the project done, he said.
Scott Kirkpatrick, executive director of Capital Region Industry for Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions, a Baton Rouge business group focused on infrastructure, said the state’s funding allows it to do little more than operations and maintenance. “We really have almost no money for any capacity projects,” he said.
“I think Garret’s working within the system to make things happen,” Kirkpatrick said. “And there is no other way that we can advance this at this point.”