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Navajo leader bemoans use of transportation funds

Official says states, rather than tribes, too often benefit from projects

WASHINGTON — The Navajo Nation’s top transportation official complained to Congress Thursday that his tribe’s members are treated as “second-class citizens” when the government allocates road funds.

“Our nation still finds itself being held to different standards and in many regards as second-class citizens,” said Paulson Chaco, director of the Navajo Division of Transportation, in testimony to a Senate Indian Affairs Committee oversight hearing.

Chaco and other witnesses said tribal governments can currently get transportation funds directly from the federal government in only a handful of cases. Most of the time, they said, tribes must have a state-government partner in order to apply for federal grants, a pairing that typically benefits nearby state highways more than it benefits projects deep within Native communities.

Chaco called for legislation that put tribes on equal footing with state governments when applying for transportation funds. Direct funding would give the Navajo more power to maintain the rural roads across their 25,000-plus square miles in parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, he said.

Recognizing tribes at the same level as states would allow “more services to be provided in areas not of interest to any particular state government,” he said.

But a Federal Highway Administration official testified that tribes have benefited under the current system. John Baxter, FHA’s associate administrator for federal lands, pointed to a $31 million award to the Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico, who used the money to add two lanes and make safety improvements to a highway that connects the tribe to the rest of the state and Colorado.

The committee hearing brought together federal transportation officials and representatives of several tribes and umbrella Indian organizations.

Chaco said that tribal governments are additionally handcuffed by the fact that they cannot collect taxes the way local and state governments do, even though the tribes pledge to maintain new roads. Because the federal government generally does not allocate funds for maintenance – opting to create new roads instead – highways on Navajo lands are falling into disrepair.

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“Unlike state governments that have an array of methods for generating revenue to assist in road maintenance, the Navajo Nation is not so fortunate,” Chaco said.

“It’s basically an unfunded mandate,” he said after the meeting.

There is a federal pot of money dedicated solely for Indian road projects. Tribes do not need a partner to apply for funds from the Interior Department’s $450 million Indian Reservation Roads program. But even that ends up being shared with state and local governments, witnesses testified Thursday.

Paul Tsosie, the chief of staff for the assistant Interior secretary for Indian affairs, testified that the department is currently reviewing the program to make sure that the money is going to roads that primarily benefit the 565 member tribes

He said the department has hired an independent auditor to review 75 percent of the projects. That will help determine which projects are primarily maintained by state or local governments and could be reclassified.

That would be fine with Homero Vela, director of public works for Navajo County.

Vela said the Navajo Nation does not include Navajo County roads — or any city- or state-maintained roads — in its request for IRR funds. So the county would not be affected if the classifications changed.

Vela does not oversee any tribal road projects, but he has worked closely with the nation, which is based in Window Rock, Ariz. He said he has seen it struggle to keep up its mostly dirt and gravel road system.

“Sometimes their children cannot get to school” because roads are unsafe, Vela said. “It’s not uncommon. There is a very legitimate problem.

“We’re rooting for them,” he said.

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Joshua Armstrong/Cronkite News Service

Paulson Chaco, director of the Navajo Nation Division of Transportation, testified that many federal grants treat tribes like second-class citizens because they force tribal governments to partner with states.