Udall Urges Action to Improve the Condition and Safety of Indian Roads
Highlights need for strong federal investment in building climate resilient Tribal transportation infrastructure
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, led an oversight hearing on “Tribal Transportation: Enhancing Tribal Self-Governance and Safety of Indian Roads.” The committee heard from the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Lands Highway Administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) Division of Transportation, Ohkay Owingeh Head Councilman Joe Garcia, and Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis.
“As Congress begins its work on reauthorizing the multi-year transportation bill set to expire in 2020 – known as the FAST Act – we must begin by acknowledging what Tribal communities across the country know all too well: Indian Country lacks safe and adequate surface transportation infrastructure. The federal government must do more to provide the resources necessary to ensure Native communities’ transportation needs are addressed,” Udall said in his opening statement.
Udall noted a Government Accountability Office (GAO) determination that “tribal transportation data does not accurately reflect road conditions or maintenance needs and associated costs.”
“This consequently stifles our ability in Congress to make informed funding decisions,” said Udall. “We need the data at the federal, state, and Tribal levels to support [Tribal] needs.”
During questioning, Udall highlighted another GAO finding that poor road conditions on Indian lands contribute to higher absenteeism rates for Indian students than non-Indian students because many Indian students’ homes are only accessible by dirt and gravel roads that become impassible during bad weather. In response, LeRoy Gishi, Chief of the BIA’s Division of Transportation, explained that 75 percent of BIA roads fall into the category of earthen or unimproved roads.
According to the GAO, the poor condition of Indian roads also contributes to higher maintenance costs for school buses that serve Indian communities, a fact that is not factored into the transportation funding formula for Tribes. Garcia agreed, and cited the case of Santa Fe Indian School, which transports its students from New Mexico tribal communities on dirt roads every school day. Garcia also mentioned that the poor quality of Indian roads is an issue for tribal senior citizens who rely on tribal vanpools for their transportation needs.
Udall noted the need to invest in climate resilient transportation infrastructure and pressed the administration on using existing authority to encourage innovative technology, and use of durable, resilient, and sustainable materials.
“When we discuss the surface transportation needs of Indian Country, we are usually talking about the lack of basic infrastructure like paved roads and bridges. But we also need to plan for the future. More frequent and extreme flooding due to climate change is happening in Indian Country and across the nation,” said Udall.
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