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More transportation funds head to Indian Country in new law

Poor conditions on the road to the American Horse School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo from American Horse School via Government Accountability Office

A bipartisan highway bill that President Barack Obama signed into law earlier this month brings more federal funds to Indian Country.

H.R.22, the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, reauthorizes the Tribal Transportation Program for five years. The additional money will help tribes fix crumbling roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

“Fixing dangerous roads in Indian Country can become a reality,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said in a press release. “Now tribes can begin to address the significant backlog of road safety projects."

"Safer roads will help save lives, spur economic development and promote stronger communities across Indian Country," Barrasso added.

Funding for Indian Country was set at a flat $450 million under MAP-21, the prior version of the highway bill. Barrasso helped boost the level immediately to $456 million for the current fiscal year, which started on October 1.

A dirt road at Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. Photo from Federal Highway Administration

The FAST Act then adds another $10 million for the following five fiscal years. The tribal program will receive $505 million in fiscal year 2020, a significant increase from the MAP-21 level.

"It it undeniable that major improvements to roads, safety and transit in Indian Country will only come with an increase in funding," Gov. J. Michael Chavarria of Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico told the committee at an oversight hearing on April 22.

The bill also includes several provisions of S.1776, the Tribal Infrastructure and Roads Enhancement and Safety (TIRES) Act, that Barraso introduced in July. The committee took quick action on the TIRES Act that same month with the goal of including it in the larger transportation package.

H.R.22 lowers the administrative fees taken by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Transportation. The rate drops from six percent to five percent, a change that seems minor but one that will restore millions of dollars for tribal projects.

"Both the Congress and the Administration (regardless of party affiliation) are so profoundly underfunding the road system in Indian country that we will never have safe roads unless they are properly built and maintained," John Smith, the director of transportation for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming, said in his testimony for the April hearing.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Indian Affairs Committee Oversight Hearing on Tribal Transportation: Pathways to Safer Roads in Indian Country

The FAST Act, however, does not include key changes to the Tribal Transportation Facility Bridge Program. The TIRES Act restored a separate stream of funding for bridges but that provision was not added to H.R.22.

Under MAP-21, bridge funding maxes out at $9 million, which represents a decline from SAFETEA-LU, the national highway bill that ran from 2005 to 2009.

Nationwide, just 17 percent of tribal roads are deemed acceptable by the BIA. According to the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Transportation, more than 60 percent of tribal roads remain unpaved and 27 percent of bridges are structurally deficient.

According to the BIA's Indian Reservation Roads program, there are more than 102,000 miles of roads in Indian Country. Only about 29,000 miles are owned by the BIA and tribes while the remainder fall under state and local jurisdiction.

The Tribal Transportation Program can be found in Section 1117 through Section 1121 of H.R.22. Additional provisions can be found in Section 1123.

The Senate approved H.R.22 by a 83 to 16 vote on December 3. It cleared the House on the same day by a 359 to 65 vote.

Obama signed the bill into law on December 4.

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