Sen. Barrasso defends quick movement on transportation bill

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, presides over a business meeting and hearing on July 22, 2015. Photo from SCIA / Flickr

TIRES Act boosts funding for tribal highways and bridges
By Andrew Bahl
Indianz.Com Staff Writer

The leader of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee defended his quick action on a transportation bill as a means of including tribal interests in a much-larger package under consideration on the Senate floor.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) brought S.1776, the Tribal Infrastructure and Roads Enhancement and Safety Act, up for a committee vote on Wednesday, only a week after introducing it. The fast turnaround drew some complaints from the panel's top Democrat.

“With the TIRES Act in particular, the bill is moving after one week," Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the vice chairman of the committee, said at the business meeting. “We did not have a legislative hearing. I’m not sure that all the tribes have had a chance to review it.”

But Barrasso took action with a larger goal in mind, a staffer said yesterday. He wants to make sure Indian Country is represented as the Senate advances a national transportation bill before the end of the month.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Indian Affairs Committee Business Meeting to consider S. 1704 and S. 1776

"Moving the TIRES Act ensures that the committee has authority over its jurisdiction regarding that bill," the staffer said.

The Senate voted 62 to 36 on Wednesday to move forward with debate on a six-year reauthorization of the nation's transportation programs. Lawmakers are hoping to finalize the bill next week in order to prevent the Highway Trust Fund from running out of money on July 31.

Congress last reauthorized the highway bill in 2012 through a bill known as MAP-21. The law authorized $450 million for the Tribal Transportation Program for fiscal years 2013 and 2014.

The TIRES Act boosts those funding levels for the next six years: $468.1 million for 2016, $477.5 million for 2017, $487.1 million for 2018, $496.8 million for 2019, $506.8 million for 2020 and $516.9 million for 2021. Tribes have long sought increases for the program.

A section of U.S. 89 on the Arizona portion of the Navajo Nation collapsed in February 2013. The state Department of Transportation has since repaired the highway. Photo from Facebook

"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 Barrasso's committee at an oversight hearing on April 22.

The TIRES Act also adopts a policy change sought by tribes by restoring a separate stream of funding for the Tribal Transportation Facility Bridge Program. Under MAP-21, bridge funding maxed out at $9 million, which represented a decline in funding from SAFETEA-LU, the national highway bill that ran from 2005 to 2009.

"There are over 4,000 bridges in Indian Country identified in the Tribal Transportation Program and 25 percent of them have been rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete," John Smith, the director of transportation for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming, said at the April hearing. "The cost to replace or rehabilitate those bridges is more than $600 million so eliminating the separately funded bridge program in MAP-21 was a bit bewildering."

Barrasso's bill restores the bridge program and sets funding levels at $16 million for 2016, $18 million for 2017, $20 million for 2018, $22 million for 2019, $24 million for 2020 and $26 million for 2021.

The Highway Trust Fund will drop below $4 billion on July 31 and will run into shortfalls before the end of next month, according to the Department of Transportation. Image from DOT

Finally, the TIRES Act streamlines the environmental review process at the Bureau of Indian Affairs for transportation projects in Indian Country. A similar procedure is already in place at the Department of Transportation.

The bill also gives tribes with self-determination contracts or self-governance compacts the option of carrying out their own environmental reviews. State governments can already assume that process.

Committee Notices:
Business Meeting to consider S. 1704 and S. 1776 (July 22, 2015)
Tribal Transportation: Pathways to Safer Roads in Indian Country (April 22, 2015)

Related Stories
Senate panel backs victim services and transportation bills (7/23)
Senate Indian Affairs Committee to hold business meeting (7/20)
Senate committee upset by testimony at victim services hearing (6/11)
Audio from Senate Indian Affairs Committee on transportation (4/22)

Join the Conversation
Trending in News
More Headlines