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Concerns remain for reservation roads

WASHINGTON - After more than a year of effort by tribes to improve funding allocations for tribal roads and negotiate new regulations for better management and maintenance, delays in changes to current law, and negotiations over the regulations, may threaten future projects.

Problems could surface as the result of the failure of a bill in Congress which would have amended the Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century, and disagreements within a federal-tribal negotiated rule-making committee.

"No funding equals no projects," said Sherwin Racehorse, tribal transportation planner for the Shoshone/Bannock Tribes of Idaho. "No projects equal no tribal employment. We face the reality that our increase in funding this year will diminish back to the U.S. Treasury with no improvements for reservation communities."

The legislation, S. 2283, the "Indian Tribal Surface Transportation Act of 2000," was introduced by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., to address funding limitations and provide technical changes in the management of the Indian Reservation Roads (IRR) program.

However, it has not gained support needed and may die once Congress adjourns. The federal-tribal committee formed in 1999 by the Secretary of the Interior to begin developing program procedures is divided over the funding formula on a number of issues. The committee is comprised of 29 tribal representatives and 13 representatives of the federal government.

While Indian country received some important increases under the act (TEA-21), a new cut was imposed on the IRR program. For the first time TEA-21 extended the "obligation limitation" to the Indian roads allocation, resulting in a loss of about $25 million of the $225 million tribes were promised for FY 98, and about $32 million of the $275 million they were promised in FY 99. In FY 2000, tribes say they lost even more.

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Under the obligation limitation, the Federal Highway Administration is required by TEA-21 to withhold a certain percentage of the total IRR obligation authority amount at the beginning of each fiscal year to be redistributed near the end of that fiscal year to recipients with projects ready for funding. However, in expanding the obligation authority withholding provision to the Indian roads allocation, TEA-21 failed to expand the redistribution authority to include Indian tribes. As a result, tribes are barred from sharing in the year end redistribution and money authorized and appropriated for tribal roads is diverted to states.

In years past, IRR funds were exempt from the obligation limitation, making 100 percent of the authorized amount available at the beginning of each year. Since the obligation limitation provision now withholds funds from tribes and states, but redistributed the withheld funds only to the states, tribal leaders and some in Congress believe a legislative change is necessary to exempt Indian roads program funds from the obligation limitation.

While S. 2283 addresses funding inequities by lifting the obligation limitation, it also responds to tribal requests for technical corrections to TEA-21 - limiting BIA administrative costs, authorizing tribes to obtain their own independent review of health and safety provisions in road construction, and language establishing a tribal self-governance pilot program under the Department of Transportation which would be administered under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

Tribes continuously expressed their support for full funding of the IRR program, but through negotiations also sought changes to give them a stronger voice in administration of construction and maintenance funds under the program. Those involved in the negotiated rule-making process are now split and asked Congress to extend the process to March 2001.

"The reality we currently face in Indian country is that TEA-21 does not give statutory authority to obligate construction funding for FY 2001," Racehorse said. "And without a IRR distribution formula, pursuant to the IRR regulatory negotiations, we are dead in the water."

The Department of Transportation reports that Indian reservation roads make up almost 3 percent of all existing roads on the federal-aid highway system. Yet, these roads have historically received less than 1 percent of the aid provided under transportation funding initiatives.