Tester, senators told road funding system on Indian reservations 'broken'


by Vince Devlin

POLSON – Almost three-quarters of the roads on American Indian reservations are unpaved, yet too much of the federal money meant to rectify that goes to states and urban tribes that don't need it, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester was told repeatedly Friday.

Tester, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, took testimony on the issue at a field hearing at KwaTaqNuk Resort -the first time a U.S. senator has convened a committee hearing on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

The first of two panels to testify included some heavy hitters from Washington, D.C., including Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk, and Michael Black, the director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But it was the second panel, of Montana and Wyoming tribal leaders critical of the current system, which was most interesting.

The Rocky Mountain region, with the largest land-based tribes and most miles of roadways, has actually lost money under the system, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Chairman E.T. "Bud" Moran charged.

His Flathead Reservation has seen federal money for roads decline, from $1.3 million in 2006, to $750,000 this year, Moran said.

"I don't understand how that's possible," Moran said, "and why the BIA hasn't stopped it."

The formula for divvying up the money, Moran added, has "been unethically manipulated by tribes and states that have learned how to do it."

The transportation director of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes of Wyoming, John Smith, told Tester it comes down to three initials – "VTM," or "vehicle miles traveled."

"When you've got a 1-acre reservation in Washington next to (Interstate) 5 with a turnoff right there, they're getting 28,000 cars a day, times 365," Smith said. "Your VMT escalates at a huge rate."

And vehicle miles traveled is a critical – and, several tribal leaders testified, unfair – part of how a limited amount of federal money for roads on reservations is allotted.

"For far too long, infrastructure most Americans take for granted has been overlooked on reservations," Moran said. From clean drinking water to cell phone service, he added, such things are "not possible without basic infrastructure" such as decent roads.


"The term ‘Indian Reservation Roads Program' is not the proper name," said CSKT Tribal Council member James Steele Jr., appearing as the chairman of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council.

In some places in the U.S., Steele said, the BIA is allowing some tribes to count "interstate highways, roads that don't exist and proposed roads" in determining how big a share of the limited pie they'll get.

"The system is broken," Steele said.

It is a complicated system.

Roads on reservations are considered federal roads, because Indian reservations are considered federal lands, and the federal government is responsible for constructing and maintaining those roads.

However, current law allows transportation funds to be used for non-federal roads that "access" reservations – even though those state and county roads have separate funding sources.

There's also the issue of "Question 10," which came up several times during Friday's hearing.

Question 10 is one of the questions in a document implementing the regulations of the Highway Bill that asks, "Should the federal government fully fund all tribal roads?"

The answer, it turns out, is extremely complicated, according to many who testified before Tester.

"We've been writing letters for years," said Tim Rosette Sr. of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe of Montana's Rocky Boy's Reservation. "Nobody listens, nobody cares, until this year when assistant secretary Echo Hawk tried to grab the bull by the horns – but it's a big bull, and he needs help."

Echo Hawk told Tester a coordinating committee for the Indian Reservation Roads Program has been unable, for four years, to agree on a recommendation for the "Q-10" issue, and had asked the BIA and Federal Highway Administration to develop a clarification.

The two agencies have held 10 regional tribal consultation meetings on a new proposed interpretation on Q-10. When Tester asked the Indian leaders who testified what they had learned from those meetings, all essentially said that they learned what they already knew: the current system is, as Steele put it, "not fair."

"We need simpler solutions," Smith added, "that are not as ambiguous" and focus on reservation populations, their land base and road miles.

More than 100 people attended the hearing, including representatives from tribes in California and Arizona. Tester noted the turnout was more than the full committee has seen at a hearing in Washington, D.C., in "quite a while."

In a somewhat unusual step for a Senate hearing, Tester also took public comment after the witnesses appeared, and that's where Jay St. Goddard of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council suggested the next hearing should be held on his reservation.

"Maybe you should have it at Heart Butte, Montana, where all your cars will fall apart on BIA roads before you get there," he said.