The Road to Happiness Starts With Better Roads
The poor state of roads and bridges in Indian country is well-documented, and all too familiar to tribal citizens who face impassable roads during storms, rough dirt roads that are the only routes to take children to school, and bridges that may only be accessible seasonally. The lack of road safety features result in crash injuries and death more often in Indian Country than anywhere else in the United States. Decrepit infrastructure has hindered economic development and stifled job growth in many tribal communities.
On April 29, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx put forward the Obama Administration’s transportation bill, “Grow America Act,” which has the construction industry, labor leaders and transportation policy advocates praising the effort to stimulate congressional action on needed investment in the nation’s deteriorating road, bridge, and rail networks. The proposal reflects some of Indian Country’s transportation needs, but falls short of the commitment required to reduce the historical funding inequities that have left many tribal roads systems stuck in the mud. Moreover, the viability of the Obama Administration’s proposal depends upon Congress adopting tax reform measures that generate new revenue to shore up the depleted Highway Trust Fund -- a big presumption given partisan gridlock in Washington.
Most Indian tribes operate their own transportation departments with funding received through the Highway Trust Fund, and these tribal transportation programs are crucial to providing safe and reliable roads, bridges and transit services. The effectiveness of such programs is essential to stimulating commerce, job creation and economic development in Indian Country.
Representatives from Indian country have been working to build momentum for tribal transportation legislation that boosts funding and further empowers tribes to transform dangerous and deficient roads and bridges into transportation networks that can safely provide tribal citizens better access to services, resources and commerce.
The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the Intertribal Transportation Association and the newly-formed Tribal Transportation Unity Caucus have linked tribes and tribal organizations in an effort to develop and promote the “Tribal Transportation Unity Act,” a proposal for comprehensive tribal transportation legislation. This tribal coalition presented their proposal to key transportation and infrastructure committees in the Congress the week before Secretary Foxx delivered his.
The Tribal Unity proposal urges the United States to deepen its commitment to infrastructure investment and transportation services in Indian Country through substantial funding increases as well as terms that provide tribal governments greater authority to plan, construct and operate transportation programs to meet tribal needs. The Obama Administration’s “Grow America Act” reflects some of these priorities, but fails to contemplate the level of investment or the breadth of tribal authority contained in the Tribal Unity Act legislation.
The most significant challenge facing tribes is the lack of adequate funding to meet the overwhelming and documented need. This Congress has objected to increasing investment in transportation when revenues from its sole funding source—the federal gas tax—are declining.
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