The story was first published by Source New Mexico.
Tribal leaders in New Mexico had a simple message for US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg: Give us money to fix roads and mend the broken agreement the federal government has failed to honor.
“So-called federal responsibility is not being met for these tribes,” Ron Shutiva Buttigieg said while in Albuquerque on Wednesday. “This federal responsibility, our great white father, is to take care of all our needs in Indian land because they took away from us the land that we have.”
Shutiva, the tribal liaison for the New Mexico Department of Transportation, hails from Acoma Pueblo and for decades has seen firsthand the problem-solving work tribal nations must do to repair and repair roads, using a funding formula shared between multiple government sources is excited.
“We always have to deal with this white tape. I call it white tape. A lot of people call it bureaucracy, but I call it white tape because someone else is making these regulations for us,” Shutiva said.
While Shutiva’s message came near the end of Wednesday’s meeting, it reflected what tribal officials from the Pueblos, Apache bands and the Navajo Nation were expressing regarding funding for new road projects, poorly maintained roads and federal grant issues that the tribal nations of Millions exclude investments under the Biden administration.
Buttigieg’s first visit Wednesday to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center came after a stop with tribal leaders at the Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute on Albuquerque’s west side. After the event at the IPCC with the All-Pueblo Council of Governors, he traveled to Arizona to meet with Hopi Chairman Timothy L. Nuvangyaoma and outgoing Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. Buttigieg also met privately with Navajo President-elect Buu Nygren in Albuquerque.
Buttigieg is visiting the Southwest to promote investment in local communities under President Biden’s 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill.
His listening session with Pueblo leaders highlighted systemic issues creating the reality that more than 60% of tribal roads are unpaved, according to federal data.
Tribes said the federal government can even help with basic needs, like ground salt for icy roads and updated equipment that can help with general maintenance.
The tribes also raised concerns that planning and developing shovel-ready projects requires expertise not all have, so federal funding for such projects could skip tribal nations in New Mexico.
“Tribes will be left behind because of infrastructure planning,” said Chris Little, director of public works for the Mescalero Apache Tribe.
Little said his tribe lost funding opportunities by spending the time assembling engineers and other specialists to meet federal dollar application guidelines, which in turn missed deadlines. He would like to see a reform that guarantees money later when the tribes complete their road construction plans.
“There are two years that we lost on funding,” he said. “So there would have to be some kind of mechanism that will make sure that the funding will be there when we start editing.”
Rising prices are also a concern. Tribal officials said the cost of building a mile of road has increased from $1 million before the pandemic to more than $3 million now. And that has left some with underfunded projects.
In addition, federal funds allocated to maintain existing roads are not keeping pace with inflation. Charles Riley of Acoma Pueblo told Buttigieg that his community receives $100,000 for road maintenance, but the total annual cost to complete the work is more than $900,000.
“The road maintenance program being run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs is never enough money compared to the amount of money we’re getting to build,” Riley said.
The tribes also raised concerns about bureaucratic mechanisms that limit the scope of their road projects.
To break it down, the Federal Highway Administration allocates millions to road projects through the Tribal Transportation Program. This program is often used to get millions more for construction projects in matching funds. But the Safe Streets and Roads for All program under Biden’s Infrastructure Act prohibits tribes from using those funds to apply for competitive grants.
This issue was brought to Buttigieg by almost all tribal officials on Wednesday, and he acknowledged his office is working to fix it.
“We’re going to be thinking about this question of the (tribal dollar) game that we hear a lot about and what we can do to put the right kind of flexibility there,” Buttigieg said after hearing about the Pueblo Leader. “I don’t know how you do it with the formula dollars to get the number of road miles that’s out there.”
Shaun Griswold is a reporter for Source New Mexico.