Stillwater News Press


May 30, 2012

Payne County commissioners renew opposition to change in tribal road funding distribution

STILLWATER, Okla. — Payne County Commission offered its support Wednesday to area tribal representatives who are worried a federal rule change could mean fewer road funds for Oklahoma tribes.

The Indian Reservation Roads program disburses federal money to American Indian and Native Alaskan groups for road maintenance and projects. The program is run jointly by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Federal Highway Administration.

The money from the program is divided among various tribes based on the tribe’s population and the tribe’s transportation inventory, which looks at the value, traffic and miles of roads the tribe maintains.

In Payne County, and Oklahoma in general, a number of tribes partner with local government to make improvements to county, city or state-owned roads that are traveled heavily by tribe members.

Usually, the tribe will pay for the lion’s share of a road or bridge project members want and then the local government will use its equipment, personnel and a small match to finish the project.

By some estimates, Oklahoma sees as much as $50 million invested annually in local transportation projects from tribal road funds.

When calculating each tribe’s share of the IRR funds, roads owned by the tribe or Bureau of Indian Affairs had carried the same weight as roads that a tribe invested in but that were not owned by the tribe. However, in 2010, federal officials began looking at a change in the formula, which would essentially give a lesser weight to roads that aren’t owned by tribes.

Truman Carter — who represents the Iowa and Sac and Fox tribes on road projects shared with local governments — told Payne County commissioners Wednesday that change would favor tribes outside of Oklahoma who have traditional reservation systems with roads owned by tribes or the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“Virtually since Oklahoma statehood, all of the rights-of-way are owned by the counties, states and cities,” Carter said. “What that would do is drastically reduce if not eliminate all the federal funding to tribes in Oklahoma, especially the small tribes like Sac and Fox and the Iowa.”

In 2010, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Federal Highway Administration held a series of public meetings to collect input on the changes. Payne County Commission, along with the Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma, offered a resolution opposing the change, and a number of county commissioners spoke out at a meeting in Oklahoma City.

On June 20, another meeting will be held in Oklahoma City, which will provide an update on the change in the funding formula.

Payne County Commission voted Wednesday to approve another resolution opposing the change before the June meeting.

Commissioner Gloria Hesser said she has heard a number of success stories from county governments partnering with Oklahoma tribes on road and bridge projects.

“It benefits all the people in Oklahoma,” Hesser said. “We are all driving on the roads and bridges … and I just think it’s absolutely fabulous that we can work together to get funding.”

Carter said between $10 million and $15 million has been invested in Payne County by tribes in recent years to help reconstruct dilapidated and dangerous bridges.

Recent projects also included partnerships with the state to do work on Highway 18 near Cushing, install a new bridge deck on Highway 33 over the Cimarron River and upgrade several Highway 33 intersections.

“What we have in Oklahoma is not uniform across the United States,” Carter said. “Tribes in Oklahoma have been partnering up — with the cities, with the counties and with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation — pooling our moneys and improving the roads and bridges all across Oklahoma.”

Bridge improvements and more paved road miles completed means a tribe’s road inventory increases, which means it could get a larger share of the IRR funds at the expense of another group. Carter said he felt other tribes were lobbying to lower the inventory value of cooperative projects by tribes in Oklahoma to protect their share of federal funds.

“We’re going to be penalized for success — making our federal tribal road and bridge dollars go farther by partnering up with the state, counties and cities,” he said.


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