Advocates seek boost for Indian Country roads
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FRIDAY, MARCH 28, 2003

With Congress set to rewrite a major federal transportation bill, Indian Country advocates are lobbying for more funds to repair some of of the worst roads and bridges in the United States.

Of the 55,000 miles of highways that run through tribal lands, more than half are unpaved, according to federal statistics. And of the nearly 750 bridges, about a quarter are deficient.

Improving this situation requires more dollars, according to tribal leaders. "Indian people," said Navajo Nation council delegate Andrew Simpson at a hearing last October, "need better roads to reach a better future."

Tribes depend on the Indian Reservation Road (IRR) program, which is funded by a small portion of a federal highway trust fund. But the amount is low -- only $238 million, or less than 1 percent of the entire fund, is available for the current year.

To combat the problem, members of Congress are pushing their initiatives. A bipartisan group of 31 lawmakers in the House, led by Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the ranking member of the committee with jurisdiction over Indian issues, is calling for sweeping changes in the IRR program.

"The fact of the matter is that today, the existing Indian Reservation Road Program is woefully inadequate," the lawmakers said on Wednesday in a letter to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

On the Senate side, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is also calling for improvements. "Roads that cut through Indian reservations are in horrendous condition," he said yesterday. "The condition of these roads threatens the safety of anyone who uses them, but especially those who have to use them to get to work or school each day."

The House members are asking for an initial $500 million investment to the IRR program, with annual increases. Bingaman, through his Tribal Transportation Program Improvement Act of 2003, S.725, seeks about the same amount of money -- $2.775 billion over the next five years.

The creation of a new program for bridges is a common them in both proposals. Rahall's group seeks a $50 million annual investment while Bingaman's bill would authorize $15 million a year.

Bingaman also wants to establish a Tribal Transportation Safety Program to improve safety on Indian roads. His bill would fund the six-year initiative with $120 million. Tribal public transit would be supported under a new Indian Reservation Rural Transit Program, funded at $20 million a year.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), considered in many circles to be an advocate for Indian Country, chairs the committee in charge of the rewriting the Transportation Equity Act (TEA). According to The Hill, a Washington, D.C., publication covering Congress, he is coming under fire for seeking $375 billion, 70 percent higher than the amount authorized by the 1998 rewrite. To help pay for it, he proposed an increase in gasoline taxes.

The paper also reported that Young, whose wife is Alaska Native, has taken jabs for naming the bill TEA-LU after his wife, Lula. Lula and Don Young have supported Alaska Native causes.

Relevant Documents:
Letter to Don Young / James Obserstar (March 25, 2003)

Relevant Links:
TEA-21 Reauthorization -
Tribal Transporation, DOT -
House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure -
Rep. Don Young -

Related Stories:
Rahall: The Indian agenda in the 108th Congress (01/08)
State disputes 'illegal jurisdiction' of tribe (10/10)
Bill to double reservation road funds (09/24)
Federal appeals court affirms tribal authority (8/15)
McCaleb tussles with tribal leaders over roads (11/8)