Indian reservation roads remain underfunded

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - Take a drive through any state or county in America and there are roads which need repair, but on American Indian reservations properly maintained roads are the exception.

Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., and Pete Domenici, R-Ariz., each introduced legislation to address the chronic inequity in allocation of funds for construction and maintenance of tribal roads.

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

Nearly three years ago, during transportation legislation reauthorization which became known as the Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century or TEA-21, tribal governments pressed Congress to increase funding for Indian roads and bridges. In the end, however, tribes did not receive necessary funds to address poor road conditions.

While Indian country got some important increases under the law, a new cut was imposed on the Indian Reservation Roads (IRR) program. For the first time, TEA-21 extended the "obligation limitation" to the Indian roads allocation. It resulted in a loss of about $25 million of the $225 million tribes were promised for FY98 and about $32 million of the $275 million promised in FY99. In FY2000, tribes stand to lose even more.

Under the TEA-21 obligation limitation, the Federal Highway Administration must withhold a certain percentage of the total IRR obligation at the beginning of each fiscal year. It is to be redistributed near the end of that fiscal year to recipients with projects immediately ready for funding.

In expanding the withholding provision to the Indian roads allocation, TEA-21 failed to expand 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.

"More is lost from the Indian roads program than the state receives back in redistributed authorization," said Connie Niva, chairman of the Transportation Commission for the state of Washington.

In the past, IRR funds were exempt from the obligation limitation, making 100 percent of the authorization available at the beginning of each year. Tribal leaders and some in Congress believe a legislative change is necessary to exempt Indian roads program funds from the obligation limitation.

"Clearly, in passing TEA-21, Congress has contradicted its proclaimed support for Indian reservation roads through the application of the obligation limitation," said Sherwin Racehorse, Transportation Planner for the Shoshone/Bannock Tribes of Idaho.

"Efficient roads are vital to most aspects of life on Indian lands, including economic development, attending school, and obtaining health care."

Last year, during deliberations over the FY2000 transportation spending bill, Sen. Domenici was a strong advocate, calling for the full $289.5 million for the Indian Reservation Roads program, despite the obligation limitations imposed under TEA-21. His efforts were effective but ultimately, TEA-21 must be amended to ensure that the Indian roads program is fully funded every year.

While both bills address funding inequities, Sen. Campbell's bill, S.2283, includes some technical corrections to TEA-21. It would limit BIA administrative costs and contains 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. Currently, both senators are looking to gather further support in the hopes that either bill will be considered before the end of the session.The Domenici bill is S. 2093.