Last week, I had a chance to visit with the National Congress of American Indians to talk about President Obama's transportation budget proposal and what it means for our tribal lands. And the news was very good.
We all know that transportation isn't just about how we get from one point to another – it's, what President Obama likes to call, a ladder of opportunity.
This is especially true in Indian Country, where a rebuilt road or a new transit system can make the difference in a child getting to school, a father getting to work, or a tribal elder getting to the doctor.
That's why the Department of Transportation has a long history of partnering with tribal communities to build the roads, bridges, and transit systems they need to succeed.
First, we have the Tribal Transportation Program, which helps tribes improve safety and public roads access to and within their lands.
Last year, as part of this program, we awarded $8.6 million in Tribal Transportation Safety Funds to 183 tribes. This is improving road safety on tribal lands, which have consistently ranked among the nation’s highest road fatality rates.
The Tribal Transportation Program is already making a huge difference. And under President Obama’s budget proposal, it will be able to make an even bigger impact – with funding increasing from $450 million per year to $507 million in 2015.
In addition to the work we’re doing on roads and bridges, we’re also committed to making sure tribal communities have access to transit services that connect to jobs, schools, and health care. That’s why we’re proud to support the Tribal Transit Program, which provides grants for tribes to build and operate public transit programs and services.
Under MAP-21, funding for this program doubled to $30 million per year. In fact, today, the Federal Transit Administration announced the award of $5 million in competitive funds to 42 American Indian and Alaska Native tribes in 19 states for projects to improve transit service. The funds complement $25 million allocated by formula to eligible tribal recipients for FY 2014. The combined $30 million investment – double the amount available in prior years – supports efforts to enhance public transit service on rural tribal lands and better connect tribal members and other residents.
And in the President’s budget, the program’s funding level would rise again –to $35 million in FY 2015.
Indian Country has also benefitted substantially from our TIGER grant program - with tribal projects receiving nearly $80 million in funding since 2009.
For example, the Navajo Division of Transportation received a $31 million TIGER grant to add two lanes to US-491 – boosting capacity and improving safety on a critical corridor that connects Navajo Nation to other parts of New Mexico and Colorado.
And with DOT now taking applications for our sixth round of TIGER, which will award $600 million this year, I hope to see tribal projects well-represented once again.
As you can see, we're already making a substantial difference in tribal communities – improving safety and ensuring access to the transportation services residents and businesses need to thrive in the 21st century.
And thanks to President Obama's vision for transportation – and the bill we'll soon be submitting to Congress – we'll be able to do even more to boost economic opportunity for America's tribal nations.
Victor Mendez is Acting Deputy U.S. Secretary of Transportation.