Great Falls Tribune: $3.6 million going to Montana tribes to improve highway safety

by David Murray

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) announced Thursday that it has authorized $20.9 million in grant awards for 88 tribal projects to reduce roadway fatalities and serious injuries on tribal lands. The grants from the Tribal Transportation Program Safety Fund include $3.6 million in construction funds for nine projects in Montana to improve travel safety on five of the state’s seven Indian Reservations.

“The crisis of traffic deaths on our nation’s roads stretches across the country, and that devastation is experienced at even higher rates in communities of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and other indigenous peoples,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a news release on Wednesday. “The grants we are announcing today through our Tribal Transportation Program will improve, repair, and modernize infrastructure in communities of all sizes on tribal land, making roads safer and saving lives.”

A recent report from the  U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) on roadway safety found that of the communities in the top 20% of roadway fatalities nationally, nearly half are “historically disadvantaged,” which, according to DOT, includes tribal lands.

A total of $3 billion in discretionary funding was set aside for the Tribal Transportation Program as part of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The $1.2 trillion act was signed into law in November 2021 following months of negotiations that included a working group of 20 Senators, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Among them was Montana Senator Jon Tester.

Southern Montana’s Northern Cheyenne Reservation will receive nearly 40% of the state’s share of Tribal Transportation Program grants. Roughly $1.4 million will go to build a multi-use pedestrian pathway leading from the outlying tribal community of Muddy Cluster into Lame Deer, the Northern Cheyenne community’s largest town. That grant will also make safety improvements to BIA Route 2.

Closer to Great Falls the Chippewa/Cree people of the Rocky Boy Reservation southwest of Havre will receive nearly $790,000 to build a similar multi-use pedestrian pathway from the community of Middle Dry Fork Village to the Rocky Boy Health Center in Box Elder, and to install striping and rumble strips on the main road bisecting the reservation from east to west.

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) four counties in Montana have a roadway fatality rate higher than the national average, and each of those four overlaps with Native American reservation lands. “The grants we’re announcing today will improve the lives of everyone who lives and travels on tribal lands,” said Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt. “We’re pleased to provide funding that can help tribes install roadway departure countermeasures and infrastructure improvements like road shoulder widening as well as pedestrian paths to make travel for all road users safer while improving mobility, access, and economic opportunity.”