Road fatalities on Indian reservations are three times the national average because road projects in Indian Country are inadequately funded, tribal leaders told federal officials Friday.
In a field hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in Polson, committee representative Sen. Jon Tester heard from government officials and tribal representatives from as far as California and Arizona who said more money was needed for reservation roads and the system needed to be better administered.
Some 73 percent of the 28,000 miles of roadways under the Bureau of Indian Affairs are unpaved and considered inadequate, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk said.
While road fatalities across the nation are declining, such deaths in Indian Country are skyrocketing. The annual fatality rate on Indian roads is three times the national average, said John Baxter of the Federal Highway Administration.
"Why have fatalities increased? because the funding is not coming," said Timothy Rossette, environmental health chief of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe of Montana.
The $450 million annual Indian Reservation Roads Program covers 126,000 miles of roads, including the 28,000 miles covered by the BIA.
Several tribal representatives told Tester, D-Mont., that the formula to split the funding between the tribes is too complicated and the criteria in which roadways can be included varies widely from region to region.
They said because the funding formula includes vehicle miles traveled, tribes in urban areas often include interstate highways and other relatively heavily traveled roadways in the inventories they submit as a way to get more money.
As a result, rural tribes often get a tiny piece of the pie for reservations that often have much worse infrastructure problems than their urban counterparts, tribal members representing those areas said.
E.T. "Bud" Moran, chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said the funding allocation is "not done in an ethical manner" and that some regions are submitting inventories "to gain the extra dollar."
Rossette said all it would take is an administrative fix, not an act of Congress.
"It comes down to what's right and what's wrong, and what's going on is wrong," Rossette said.
But there is disagreement between the tribes on how to fix it.
Tribal representatives from Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas implored the federal government to simplify the funding formula. John Smith, transportation director of Wyoming's Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes, said the funding allocation should be based on population and miles of road instead of vehicle miles traveled.
Other tribes say they have been unjustly vilified. Jacque Hostler, a transportation official representing the North Coast Tribal Chairmen's Association and 110 tribes in California, said tribes in her state have been mischaracterized.
"California should not be judged as building roads to Disneyland," she said. "While there are a handful of urban tribes with large casinos located on or near interstates, there are thousands of tribal dirt and gravel and unimproved roads that provide access to tribal reservations, villages and communities."
Echo Hawk said federal officials have held 10 listening sessions in different parts of the country on what should be done with the funding formula, but there has not been consensus. The BIA and the Federal Highway Administration have proposed changing how roadways are classified in the funding formula, but more work has to be done for that proposal to gain acceptance, officials said.
Tester asked tribal leaders to identify their priorities for the next highway spending bill, which expected to be introduced next year. Leaders agreed that more money should be allocated for Indian Country.
Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said reservations make up nearly 3 percent of federal roadways but get less than 0.5 percent of total federal highway funding.
He said one way for Indians to receive a more equitable share would be for Congress to clarify the ability of tribes to collect fuel taxes on their lands.