McCaleb tussles with tribal leaders over roads
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Kowtowing to pressure from tribal leaders who felt they were being shoved aside by the Bush administration, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb has given a joint tribal-federal committee more time to come up with a way to distribute critical highway funds.

During a speech at a national tribal transportation conference in New Mexico last week, McCaleb announced he would give the committee, which is composed of tribal leaders and federal representatives, more time to develop a distribution formula. Saying he "listened" to concerns raised by tribes, he said the committee has until the beginning of next year to offer a proposal.

McCaleb's move is a reversal of a position he took just weeks earlier. During an October 10 meeting in Washington, D.C., with tribal representatives who lead the committee, he expressed frustration with their inability to decide between two funding formulas.

Tribal leaders were surprised with McCaleb's stance, saying they had been directed to work with two formulas. Both would be made available for public comment, they believed, and the responses would be used to finalize a single rule.

That would give tribes the chance to weigh in on the proposal they favored. With nearly $230 million at stake to repair, replace and construct often substandard roads in Indian Country, it was felt the process could best serve tribal needs.

Instead, McCaleb said he would take the two options and come up with his own solution. Over the objections of tribal leaders on the committee, who hadn't been allowed to meet since the Bush administration took over the White House, he indicated he would announce the formula at the National Tribal Roads Conference.

Up until the last week, McCaleb -- who served for more than ten years as Oklahoma's Secretary of Transportation -- appeared set to do just that. During a speech to the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention in Alaska just days before the roads conference began, he noted the controversy he had run encountered in Indian Country.

"There is a lot of divergence of issues because roads are a very local issue," he said, "and that's what, in effect, has divided the Indian community."

According to McCaleb, large land-based tribes have shown support for a funding formula that factors in the number of highway miles within their reservations. On the other hand, he said, tribes with a smaller land base, including those in Alaska, have favored a population-based formula. Either say, McCaleb was not pleased with the committee's work.

"After almost three years of meeting, and three years of debating, and three years of trying to find common ground," he said, "what was submitted for publication were two formulas for distribution and not one formula for distribution. And they were different and disparate."

Since time was running out to finalize a proposal, McCaleb said tribes would be better off not worried about how the funds were distributed, but how much was available under the Indian Reservation Roads Program. While the federal highway trust fund has more than tripled, he said, Indian Country has not seen a similar gain.

"It's not the slice of the pizza that counts, it's the size of the pizza that's really important," he said.

But rather than cut the pizza himself, McCaleb is now set to let tribes figure it out for themselves -- just as they had originally hoped. However, he is pushing tribes to accept his "compromise formula" that his own staff developed.

Alaska Natives, for instance, would get at least $238 million over six years under his compromise, said McCaleb. On the other hand, the formula currently supported by small tribes would only send $67.5 million their way, he said.

The compromise, however, comes at an expense to larger tribes. The ten largest tribes, he said, would lose $57 million over six years.

For instance, the Navajo Nation, the largest tribe in the country, would miss out on $35 million. According to McCaleb, the tribe was not "impressed" when told of the "beauties" of his proposal.

Whatever the dispute, the TEA-21 Negotiated Rulemaking Committee, as the group is known will have to advance a formula to McCaleb by January 1, 2002. It would become effective after being published in the Federal Register and a standard comment and response period.

The Federal Highway Administration, an agency of the Department of Transportation, is responsible for distributing federal funds, including those to Indian Country. A formula is needed by 2003 in order to determine how much money will be allocated to the BIA for reservation roads.

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