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October 1, 2020 6:00 PM, EDT

DOT’s Transportation Self-Governance Program for Tribes Takes Effect

Monument Valley near the Arizona-Utah borderU.S. Route 163 runs through Monument Valley, which is near the Arizona-Utah border. It lies within the Navajo Nation Reservation. (tonda/Getty Images)

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The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Tribal Transportation Self-Governance Program has officially taken effect.

The program provides a framework for federal government offices and Indian tribes to work together to improve transportation infrastructure project delivery in tribal lands. Additionally, it is meant to streamline DOT’s distribution of transportation funding to participating tribes.

A result of years of negotiations among representatives of the tribes, DOT and the Department of the Interior, the program took effect Oct. 1.

“This agreement will bring to life tribal self-governance in a capacity that wasn’t previously available,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a video announcement. “It allows participating tribes greater autonomy to manage transportation programs and enhances their ability to reallocate resources to best meet their needs, all while reducing burdensome red tape.”

The final rule regarding the Tribal Transportation Self-Governance Program was published in the Federal Register on June 1. The program implements a process through which tribes can negotiate alternative funding mechanisms by executing compacts with DOT. It also provides tribes with control over the implementation of tribal programs, services, functions and activities.

Another purpose of the program is to reduce administrative burdens on the participating tribes. The Federal Register notice stated that DOT will incur a minimal amount of administrative costs to run the program and will dedicate existing employees to this work, rather than increase staff levels.

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Participating tribes may experience cost savings if they join the program. These savings might come from increased efficiencies from streamlined contract negotiations, simplified fund transfers and greater autonomy in managing funds. Participants also may experience benefits such as greater legal certainty and more timely delivery of funds.

Indian tribes and tribal consortia are eligible for the program. To participate, a tribal government entity must demonstrate fiscal stability and transportation program management capability.

During her announcement, Chao noted that facilitating transportation projects in tribal communities ties in with DOT’s emphasis on supporting rural infrastructure needs. In October 2019, the agency created the Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success program. Known as ROUTES, the program is meant to help connectivity in rural communities.

Rural roads make up 70% of America’s road miles, according to DOT. Maintaining these roadways can be a challenge for rural communities that have thin financial resources. Although geographically sprawling, rural communities generally have low population densities, meaning fewer people to support investment.

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“Rural infrastructure has been overlooked for far too long,” Chao said. “Nowhere is this more acute than on tribal lands. Poor infrastructure compromises safety, impedes economic development and job creation, and harms the quality of life.”

DOT has included consideration of rural community needs through some of its popular grant programs.

The Infrastructure For Rebuilding America grant program directs a certain amount of funds toward rural projects. In the latest round of INFRA grants, announced June 18, 53% of the funding was devoted to projects in rural areas.

In the latest round of Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) discretionary grants, issued Sept. 16, half of the $1 billion in funding was awarded to projects in rural areas.

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