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Indian Country receives funds under highway bill

A $286.4 billion transportation bill with $1.86 billion for Indian County was signed into law by President Bush on Wednesday.

Bush's approval came despite White House attempts to rein in Congressional spending. The 835-page measure was packed with more than 6,000 "pork" projects for states, cities and local governments across the nation.

Indian Country certainly benefited from some of that largesse. In addition to the reauthorization of the Indian Reservation Roads program, the bill includes earmarks for specific tribal projects, such as $2 million for road upgrades at the Flandreau Indian School in South Dakota.

"This highway bill will give tribes an added boost by improving their transportation infrastructure. This goes hand in hand with efforts to attract economic development for their people," said Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Domenici said Indian Country fared better than expected in the final version of the bill, which passed the House and Senate on July 29. Currently funded at $284 million, IRR will receive $300 million for fiscal year 2005, $330 million for 2006, $370 million for 007, $410 million for 2008 and $450 million for 2009.

The money will be used to improve roads and bridges on reservations across the nation. Of the 55,000 miles of highways that run through tribal lands, more than half are unpaved, according to federal statistics.

The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005 also includes other provisions aimed at benefiting tribes. It imposes caps on the Bureau of Indian Affairs' use of IRR funds for administrative purposes, a long=standing tribal request.

The Department of Transportation, in cooperation with tribes, must complete a "comprehensive national inventory" of eligible transportation facilities within two years. The inventory will include roads running through reservations in the U.S., former reservations in Oklahoma and Alaska Native villages.

The bill also authorizes an additional $14 million from 2005 through 2009 for reservation bridge projects. Of the nearly 750 bridges, about a quarter are deficient, according to government data.

Under another section, the bill creates a deputy assistant secretary for tribal government affairs at the Department of Transportation. The position will be appointed by the president to "coordinate tribal transportation programs and activities" within the department and to participate in rulemaking related to tribal transportation projects. Language in the section reaffirms the Transportation Secretary's trust responsibilities to tribes and individual Indians.

A new section allows tribes to nominate a road for inclusion in the scenic byway program so long as the state doesn't have jurisdiction or responsibility for managing the road.

For Alaska Natives, the bill creates a committee under the Denali Commission to work on the "surface transportation needs" of villages and rural communities. The committee will include four members who represent Alaska Native corporations, tribes or non-profit entities; four members who represent rural Alaska regions or villages; and the chairman of the Denali Commission.

An earlier version of the Senate bill had included other language affecting Alaska Natives but the language appears to have been removed in the final package. But four village projects have been excluded from the BIA's final IRR rule regarding the distribution of IRR funds.

According to Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), the bill includes $45 million for transit projects on reservations. Some of the earmarks include $2 million to reconstruct U.S. 491 on the Navajo Nation and $9 million to maintain dirt roads on the Navajo Nation.

Highway Transportation Act:
H.R.3 | Conference Report