Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.
The coronavirus crisis has further exposed the deep fissures in infrastructure across much of Indian Country, including water and electricity, health care and other basic needs. For instance, an estimated 30 percent of homes on the Navajo reservation, home to an estimated 175,000 residents, lack access to clean, reliable drinking water. They haul their water from local utilities, according to the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources, a process that requires driving down pockmarked dirt roads while shelter-at-home orders remain in effect.
It’s the lack of infrastructure coupled with high incidences of underlying health conditions that have led to Indian Country’s disproportionate battering by COVID-19.
But Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, is doing something to change that.
On August 31st, Haaland delivered a keynote address to the National Transportation in Indian Country Conference. During her address, she discussed the proposals in Congress that seek to boost infrastructure in Indian Country, which is paramount in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Haaland also emphasized the importance of filling out the U.S. Census to ensure infrastructure projects are funded at the levels needed to serve Tribal communities. Indian Country is a population historically undercounted by the Census, and thus underfunded.
The national conference, hosted by the Center for Tribal Transportation, offered sessions on transit, safety, planning and the latest updates to Tribes, Tribal organizations and their partners.
Haaland spoke as a member of the Pueblo of Laguna; a representative of New Mexico; Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus; Vice-Chair on the Natural Resources Committee; Chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands; a member of The House Armed Services Committee; and as a member of the Subcommittee on Indigenous People.
“When you advocate for your Tribe, your Nation, your family, or a matter that means a lot to you, always remember the power of perseverance, resiliency — and the power of your testimony,” Haaland spoke before the virtual conference.
That’s exactly what she’s doing when it comes to Tribal infrastructure, and particularly as it relates to roads and transportation.
Haaland is a cosponsor of The INVEST in America Act and H.R. 2, the Moving Forward Act, which is the big infrastructure package that the House passed in July. In short, they were combined. The acts contain a significant funding increase for the Tribal Transportation Program (TTP). It proposes providing $800 million per year for the TTP out of the Highway Trust Fund, allows construction of 14 new bridges, and funds safety projects in Tribal Nations.
It funds an already authorized program that has never before been funded, the Tribal High Priority Projects program. This program would receive $50 million annually out of the Highway Trust Fund. The grants, up to $5 million each, would go to the highest priority projects of Tribes whose annual transportation funding is either insufficient or inaccessible.
There is $400 million to fund the Federal Lands and Tribal Major Projects Program. This would provide an annual authorization from the Highway Trust Fund to allow for preconstruction activities.
It would provide the establishment of the Office of Tribal Government Affairs within U.S. DOT and a new Assistant Secretary for Tribal Government Affairs position. This would provide oversight and technical assistance to Tribes.
It would allow Tribes and Federal land management agencies to use the same alternative contracting methods available to States.
And it would revise the rural transit formula to increase the funding after a new Census designation. It increases Tribal rural funds by 57 percent, with $10 million for competitive grants and $45 million for Tribal formula funds.
H.R. 2 includes a focus on broadband and electricity as well.
Expanding broadband to rural and Tribal lands is a significant focus of Haaland’s leadership. The New Mexico Congresswoman was successful in getting an amendment passed to increase broadband spectrum access for Tribes in the Moving Forward Act. Native communities across the country need to be connected to broadband Internet to address longstanding disparities, but right now there are barriers for Tribes to access broadband on their lands. This will help to remove one of those barriers and ensure Tribes can begin the steps to self-govern and provide high speed internet for Native Americans on Tribal lands across the country.
Meanwhile H.R. 2 includes the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program, which would award grants to Tribal governments, Alaska Native entities, and Native Hawaiian organizations. Approximately $625 million would be designated to this program.
As Haaland shared with the virtual National Transportation in Indian Country Conference attendees:
$80 billion would be appropriated to expand Broadband Access in Unserved Areas and Areas with Low-Tier or Mid-Tier Service. Importantly, awardees must pay wages to employees working on projects funded through this program at rates not less than those prevailing on projects of a similar character in the locality, and meet prevailing Federal labor and environmental requirements.
There would be a requirement by the Secretary of Energy to assess electricity access and reliability by Tribal communities and to produce a report based on the findings of the assessment. The Secretary would be required to consult with Tribal governments in the design and how to conduct the study.
A 30% tax credit for operations and maintenance costs of government-owned broadband would be provided for State, local, and tribal governments for the operations and maintenance costs of government owned broadband systems.
There will also eventually be a surface transportation reauthorization bill, and the transportation parts of H.R. 2 could form the basis for that—if Democrats are in control.
All of this said, Haaland doesn’t foresee H.R. 2 “going anywhere in the current Senate or with the current President,” she said. “IF there is a change in leadership in November, however, it could serve as the starting point for legislation to promote economic recovery through investment in infrastructure.”
Haaland emphasized that there is enough money to fund Tribal infrastructure and transportation needs, it’s merely a matter of securing it.
“I have said this before, and I will repeat it: There is enough money in this country — but we need to reset our priorities,” Haaland stated.