WATCH: Sen. Mark Kelly Underscores Need for Tribal Infrastructure Investment in Arizona During Subcommittee Hearing
At his first Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure hearing, Arizona Senator Mark Kelly spoke about the effects of a lack of federal investments in transportation infrastructure for Arizona’s tribal communities, and asked witnesses to identify ways to ensure equitable transportation planning efforts in the future.
Specifically, the Senator raised questions surrounding road conditions on tribal lands and the larger-scale effects they have on indigenous communities, such as the retention of school teachers. Kelly noted that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death from unintentional injuries for Native American adults, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than twice that of non-Natives.
“As I’ve spent time on the Navajo nation, a number of times when I visited, this issue comes up frequently,” said Kelly at the hearing citing the poor condition of roads in Arizona tribal communities. “…For example, it affects the ability of Native schools to get teachers. When you have to travel a long distance on a dirt road, it’s not a practical or desirable thing for teachers that are commuting to tribal schools. So, Mr. Panos, would you agree that funding high-priority projects has benefits for non-Natives as well?”
You can watch Kelly’s questions HERE.
The Tribal Transportation Program, which is the main federal program supporting highway construction on Native lands, relies on a funding formula which has not been updated since fiscal year 2011, depriving many tribal communities of much needed infrastructure funding.
See a transcript of Kelly’s questions and remarks below:
Kelly [2:15:20]: Thank you Mr. Chairman, I’d like to discuss the condition of roads on tribal lands. Like Arizona, North Dakota is home to large swaths of tribal lands that contain thousands of miles of roads administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and tribal governments. Nearly two-thirds of these roads are unpaved dirt or gravel roads. Frankly, many of them are unsafe. School buses transporting Native kids need constant repairs. The CDC estimates that Native Americans using these roads suffer crashes and pedestrian collisions up to three times higher than non-Natives. Mr. Panos, how would you describe the road system on tribal lands and their impacts on the daily lives of Native Americans?
Panos [2:26:30]: Mr. Chairman, Senator Kelly, thank you. Thank you so much for your question. As you know, like Arizona, the northern plains, states have numerous sort of areas of tribal nations. In all of the five states that my written testimony was coordinated with, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Idaho, have significant areas, like many of the states in the West, where there are tribal nations. And we, as I described earlier, work extensively with them and are seeking even more coordinated support for them with Bureau of Indian Affairs, a with authorities given to us by the state, with authorities given to us by the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) through the formula with authorities given to us through Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to work with them more and more. And on many of these tribal nation areas, the little things matter. If we can bring gravel in to help re-gravel a road or we can improve with a stop sign or other kinds of things — they make a world of difference to these areas, and improve safety significantly. So a little bit of money goes a long way. And again, I would focus back on the formula, creating more authorities within the formula to allow us to do these kinds of things that are necessary with local government with tribal nations, I think would help and provide that kind of support across our country. And so that I hope that answers your question and that’s been my experience here in North Dakota and Wyoming. And I’m sure, you know, is the experience in Arizona as well. Oh and I must say one more thing, the Departments of Transportation are doing a great job at reaching out and engaging the BIA, engaging tribal nations every single day on public transit, on roads, on bridges, on resiliency, those kinds of things, but more can be done now.
Kelly [2:18:42]: As I’ve spent time on the Navajo nation, a number of times when I visited, this issue comes up frequently. It affects not only…the condition… there are other effects, for example, it affects the ability of Native schools to get teachers. When you have to travel a long distance on a dirt road, it’s not a practical or desirable thing for teachers that are commuting to tribal schools. So, Mr. Panos, would you agree that funding high-priority projects has benefits for non-Natives as well.
Panos [2:19:30]: Senator Kelly, Chairman Cardin, yes! I’m glad you brought up the example of schools. For about five years, I was the school construction executive of Washington and built about 500 schools a year for about 5 years, K-12 schools there, including all the tribal nations schools. And so, based on that experience I’d say yes to your question.
Kelly [2:19:57]: Thank you, I yield back.