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Tribal task force demands better rez roads

WASHINGTON ? Notoriously awful reservation roads are the targets of a new tribal task force sponsored by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).

The new group recently gathered tribal representatives from across the country to begin work on the reauthorization of important legislation aimed at the construction and maintenance of tribal roads.

The first meeting of the Tribal Transportation Reauthorization Task Force made preliminary plans to gain consensus on a new Indian transportation bill.

According to the Department of Transportation, Indian reservation roads make up almost three percent of all existing roads on the federal-aid highway system. Yet, these roads have historically received less than one percent of transportation funding initiatives.

Nearly five years ago, tribal governments pressed Congress to increase funding for Indian roads and bridges in what is now known as the Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century, or TEA-21. In the end, however, tribes still did not receive what was necessary to improve poor roads on Indian reservations.

While Indian country did receive some important increases under the law, a new cut was imposed on the Indian Reservation Roads (IRR) program. TEA-21 for the first time extended the "obligation limitation" to the Indian roads allocation, resulting in a loss of about $35 million. Under this provision, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is required by TEA-21 to withhold a certain percentage of the total IRR authority at the beginning of each fiscal year to be redistributed near the end of that fiscal year to recipients with projects that are immediately ready for funding.

However, in expanding the provision to the Indian road 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. Thus money authorized and appropriated for tribal roads is diverted to states. Under the FY2002 appropriations, $275 million is allocated for the Indian Reservation Roads program, with an additional $35 million to offset the legal directive improperly applied to tribes. The additional $35 million aims to correct this inequity.

Now, with tribal needs clearly documented, the NCAI Task Force is looking to double the current base funding level and remove the obligation limitation as the law comes up for reauthorization this year. Tex Hall, co-chairman of the task force, and chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota, says that the efforts undertaken by the task force are vital for gathering the data needed to convince Congress that funding should be increased.

"Under the current formulas we're way underfunded," Hall said. "We can gather together the road inventories and show that our current unmet needs merit at least a doubling in funds." In years past, IRR funds were also exempt from the obligation limitation, making 100 percent of the authorized amount available at the beginning of each year. Since the provision now withholds funds from tribes and states, but redistributes 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.

Hall says that the task force is asking Congress to fund the IRR at $500 million, with no restrictions from the obligation limitation. He said some of the group's first priorities would be to gather data, examine current formulas, address the obligation limitation, and increase base funding. Transportation and economic development go hand and hand," Hall said. "We're looking forward to new legislation which is more inclusive of our real needs and goals."

The next meeting of the task force is scheduled for Feb. 25 in Washington, D.C.