(U.S. SENATE) – The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held an oversight hearing today to examine the state of tribal transportation programs at the Department of Transportation and the Department of the Interior to establish priorities for reauthorization of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21). Tribal leaders testified on the difficult transportation conditions on Indian lands and the budget constraints that endanger safety and hamper economic development.
“Safe roads and highways are critical to issues such as public safety and education. On some Indian reservations, children spend two hours a day traveling to and from school on roads that are not adequate. The dire conditions of these roads lead to delayed response time for law enforcement or medical assistance. Investments in improved roads can speed up these response times and increase the chances of saving lives,” said Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-MT). “Motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of death for American Indians ages one through 34 and the third overall cause of death for all American Indians. Many of these deaths are preventable. “
Over 8 billion vehicle miles are traveled annually on the tribal roads, but more than 60% of those roads are unpaved and 27% of the bridges are deficient. Adult motor vehicle-related death rates for American Indians and Alaska Natives are more than twice that of the general population. In the last 25 years, while the rate of fatal motor vehicle crashes has decline by 2% for the rest of the population, for Indian communities it has increased by 52.5%.
“Indians continue to rank at the bottom of every social and economic indicator regarding rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancer; infant mortality; life expectancy; chemical dependency; suicide; unemployment; and income, to name a few. Unfortunately, the leading cause of death among all Americans, especially Native Americans, is motor vehicle crashes,” said Dana Buckles, tribal executive board member of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation. “Funding for the Tribal Transportation Program, $450 million for 566 Federally recognized Indian tribes, has not increased since FY 2009, and in fact went down under MAP-21.”
Director Michael Black of the Bureau of Indian Affairs acknowledged the funding challenges, “The road maintenance budget has basically remained steady for almost 20 years – around $20 to $25 million a year,” Black said. “It is a challenge we have been facing for many years.”
Wes Martel, of the Joint Business Council of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, cited government reports on the severe lack of funding: “According to the Department of Transportation there is an unmet transportation need in Indian country of nearly $80 billion if you count roads as well as maintenance and bridges and safety planning. The BIA Road Maintenance Program has been chronically underfunded under the U.S. Department of the Interior.”
Director Robert Sparrow of the U.S. Department of Transportation said, “Transportation infrastructure is a critical tool for Tribes to improve the quality of life in their communities by providing safe access to jobs, hospitals, and schools. The challenges are to maintain and improve transportation systems serving Indian lands and Alaska Native villages in order to provide safe and efficient transportation, while at the same time protecting environmentally sensitive lands and cultural resources. The Department is committed to improving transportation access to and through tribal lands through stewardship of the Federal Lands and Federal-aid programs.”
President of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Edward Thomas, noted that “Indian Country lags far behind the rest of America in terms of access to vital services and markets. In rural Indian country, we dial 9-1-1 and then wait for hours, sometimes days, for law enforcement or emergency medical help to arrive. Unlike in the rest of America, ‘access’ in Indian Country is often a matter of life or death.” Thomas added, “Our inadequate roads block our economic development and commerce, restrict essential services, and pose a serious obstacle to our citizens who simply want to get to and from work and home.”
Chairman Tester vowed to continue to delve into the issue of adequate funding for critical infrastructure in Indian Country, and asked the federal agencies to provide the Committee with detailed accounting of costs and expenditures to better understand this ongoing challenge.
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