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Public Statements

Alaska Rural Roads System

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Ms. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, we are dealing with the Transportation bill, and let me say I hope we truly deal with the Transportation bill eventually because there has been a great deal of work on this measure by the chairman and the ranking members of the relevant committees, and I thank them for the hard work they have put into this. I support their efforts to give States long-term security for moving forward with Federal highway aid and transit programs. I support the efforts to give States that long-term security for planning purposes, improve the project approval process, and reduce duplicative and excessive programs. However, I do have very serious concerns with certain aspects of the legislation proposed. Most particularly, and the reason I have come to the floor this evening, is to discuss what this legislation does to the Indian Reservation Roads Program. This is the program known as IRR.

IRR is a jointly administered program between the Federal Highway Administration and the Bureau of Indian Affairs that addresses the transportation needs of our tribes by providing funds for the planning, the design, the construction, and the maintenance activities.

The Indian Reservation Roads are public roads. They provide access to and within Indian reservations, Indian trust land, restricted Indian land, and Alaskan Native villages. There are approximately 29,000 miles that are under jurisdiction of the BIA and the tribes, and another 73,000 miles are under State and local ownership. IRR funds can be used for any type of title 23 transportation project that provides access to or within Federal or Indian lands and may be used as the State and local matching share for a portion of Federal aid highway funds. The IRR inventory is a comprehensive database of all transportation facilities that are eligible for IRR Program funding by tribe, reservation, BIA agency, region, congressional district, the State, and the county.

I think it is important to understand how we came to the position of where we are today with MAP 21. For years, Alaska received very little assistance from the IRR Program because we only have one reservation, a very small reservation down in southeastern Alaska, Metlakatla and, therefore, little to no BIA-owned roads. The BIA maintains a national database of roads, the IRR inventory, which is used to allocate IRR funds and determine locations where IRR funds can be used. State and county-owned roads comprise the majority of the road miles within the IRR system. A few decades ago, there were very few villages in Alaska that were putting any inventory into the system. TEA 21 gave the committee criteria in establishing the funding formula based on the needs of Indian tribes for transportation assistance, cost of road construction, geographic isolation, and difficulty in maintaining all-weather access to employment, commerce, health, safety, and education resources. With the passage of TEA 21, a rulemaking committee was established, the IRR Program Coordinating Committee, which helped to develop the funding formula which was published in 2004. The coordinating committee was made up of 12 primary members from Indian tribes, one from each region. There were 12 alternates and two nonvoting Federal representatives. Decisions that were made by the committee were reached by consensus. It was not a majority decision process.

The funding formula, which is known as the relative need distribution formula, adopted in the IRR Program final rule, reflects Congress's intent that the funding distribution method balance the interests of all tribes and enable all tribes to participate in the IRR Program. I should note that 40 percent of all federally recognized tribes in the Nation reside in the State of Alaska--40 percent. I think that is something many of my colleagues are not aware of. That balancing of interests called for avoiding substantial allocations from the larger tribes while still addressing the central problem that historically left the smaller tribes out of the program. The prior formula distributed funds based on an inventory limited to roads built and owned by the BIA. But the new formula broadened tribal participation by allowing the inclusion of State, county, and municipally owned IRR-eligible facilities in the inventory so the actual IRR transportation needs could be counted for funding purposes.

In 2003, Loretta Bullard, who is with a regional nonprofit representing the Bering Straits region of northwestern Alaska, testified before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee saying that the BIA had never surveyed any villages to identify the roads that were eligible for support. So there just wasn't a complete inventory at that time because there had never been a survey up in Alaska. That was back in 2003. As a result of the 2004 rulemaking, which took 5 years, by the way, Alaska increased its inventory. Alaska benefited from a competitive grant program that was established under the rulemaking for smaller tribes called the High Priority Project Program. This legislation we are dealing with now seeks to undo all the gains Alaska made through TEA 21, through the 2004 rulemaking, and through SAFETEA LU. It is all unraveled with this legislation. Alaska is unfairly harmed by MAP 21, more than any other region in the country. Alaska loses $16 million a year under MAP 21 and tribes throughout the State will be effectively shut out of the program. This is not acceptable. The current negotiated regulation, which was developed, again, by consensus from tribes throughout the entire country, is focused on need. The new formula which we see reflected in this legislation was written behind closed doors by a handful of people with no government-to-government tribal consultation. Its focus is on the population and the urban areas. It disregards the trust responsibility that is owed to the 566 federally recognized tribes in our Nation, 229 of which reside in the State of Alaska--again, nearly half of all the recognized tribes in the Nation.

I think every time I come to the floor and talk about something, I have to put up the map of Alaska so we are all reminded how big it is. This is the proportional size when we superimpose Alaska over the rest of the lower 48. The red on this map is our road system. All these areas in white where we don't see anything, there are no roads there. Clearly our roads are pretty limited--our road system is centralized in the middle of the state, with a few scattered roads in other areas.

What is behind this kind of great shadow of Alaska? The States that are covered up behind it are North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Illinois. They are all kind of tucked under this great expanse. Just imagine if one is from Missouri, it would be like saying we have no roads in the state. That is what we are talking about. My map shows all the roads in Alaska, not the IRR roads. These are our State roads and our Federal highways. This is everything. So when we are talking about the IRR piece, it is even more minuscule in terms of comparison to what the Lower 48 has.

We have approximately 16,000 miles of road in Alaska, and 5,600 miles of those are unpaved. That sounds like a lot, but keep in mind, we have 570,000 square miles of land to cover in my home state. When you put in perspective, that's not a lot of roads we are talking about--16,000 miles of road for 570,000 square miles of state.

I would like to highlight some of the things we have been able to do in the State of Alaska as a result of the IRR Program. The Indian Reservation Roads Program funds the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges within Alaska Native villages. In many cases, these are not roads you and I would think of as typical roads.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent for an additional 5 minutes from my colleague, if that is acceptable.

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Ms. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, most of our roads, when we are talking about the IRR roads, are not necessarily roads that are going to carry a vehicle. These are roads that will carry pedestrians, a four-wheeler, a snow machine. These are the ways that Alaska's Native people access our subsistence resources, haul their subsistence food home. These are the roads that form the link to the village airport, which is the only way out during the wintertime. If there are no roads, you have to be flying to all of these locations.

This is a picture of the village of Kwigillingok, which lies on the western shore of Kuskokwim Bay, 388 miles west of Anchorage. In this village, the primary mode of transportation is by foot, ATV, and snow machine in the wintertime. But you look at this picture, it is all nice, green--it looks beautiful. But it is tundra. It is wet and marshy. If you get down there in your rubber boots, you are going to be up to your knees in brush and water. You cannot walk through this and would not want to put a vehicle on it.

So what you see here is a real technological breakthrough in how to build rural roads in places where dirt and gravel either just do not exist out there or just do not work. This was built using IRR funds from the Native village of Kwigillingok, funding from the State of Alaska, and funding from the Denali Commission. This is construction of a geo-tech grid track. It looks like grading. It is like a plastic grading that overlays the ground and provides access over the tundra.

IRR funding and the Denali Commission funding were leveraged with other funding sources, and it provided jobs within the community.

The next picture we have is a boardwalk, a board road that was built in Nunam Iqua, which is on the south fork of the Yukon River, about 500 miles northwest of Anchorage. Again, this project was made possible by leveraging funds from the Denali Commission, the State of Alaska, and Nunam Iqua's tribal shares from the IRR Program.

It is just a boardwalk, but you look at this picture, and you can see it is kind of rippled and wavy. Well, that is what happens when you put boards on top of wet, marshy tundra, but at least you can walk on it. At least you can access it by your four-wheeler without doing damage to the area and it connects your schools and health clinics to the homes. This project created jobs within the community and a safe road system for the residents to access public facilities.

This picture is from one of my visits down in the Y-K Delta. You can see, this is their road system. It provides a connection to homes and to community facilities. This is the means of transportation here. You go out on the tundra there and, again, you sink.

I took Secretary Paige, the Secretary of Education, out there to one of our smaller villages, Tuntutuliak, and we got out and got on the boardwalk, and he said: When does it dry out here?

I said: Sir, this is as dry as it gets.

He said: Where do the children play?

I said: Well, this is it.

In the Lower 48 children play on the sidewalks and quiet neighborhood streets, in rural Alaska children play on the boardwalks.

We also have some challenging conditions in other parts of our State.

In southeastern Alaska, we do not have to worry about the tundra, but we do have some challenging conditions. The Craig Tribal Association down in Craig has been working on the reconstruction of the Port Saint Nicholas Road for the past 4 years. The road has several bridges that are being replaced concurrent with the road construction.

Again, ``the Denali Commission has been a committed, critical partner,'' in the words of the tribe. In this picture, you can see Dog Salmon Creek Bridge prior to the construction. This was a dilapidated, rotting, wooden bridge. Then, in the next picture, you can see what $1.7 million from the Denali Commission and from IRR does--a modest investment that really comes together. You have a paved road and a solid bridge that is going to last for decades.

But these projects could not be built under the reduced funding levels for small tribes that we have proposed in MAP 21. Tribal transportation funding in the bill is directed toward populated areas, and roads that are more established receive greater amounts of funding.

So again, when you take into account an area such as Alaska, where we have many miles but few people, and a formula that is designed to work against us, how do we ever make headway, how do we ever connect these communities, how do we ever allow for a transportation system to progress and be developed?

I have submitted an amendment I hope we will have an opportunity to bring up. It restores current law and current regulations with respect to the funding formula that was developed, again, after years of negotiation in a very open and transparent process.

Just yesterday, at the Intertribal Transportation Association meeting in
Minnesota, we had tribes from the Rocky Mountain region, the Great Plains region, the Midwest region, and the Navajo Nation who all agreed that MAP 21 sets a dangerous precedent to allow Congress to overturn the tribal rulemaking process, as it is a threat to tribal sovereignty, and we are hearing more and more concerns every day about the opposition coming from those who feel they have been circumvented by Congress in this act.

In the past couple days, I have received letters from tribes from California, as well as Alaska. I have a letter from the Susanville Indian Rancheria, one from the Ramona Band of Cahuilla, who wrote: Under MAP 21, smaller urban tribes with paved roads garner a significant increase in funding while tribes such as the Ramona Band which are rural and have poor roads, arguably those with the most need and no other access to transportation funding, will see significant decreases.

What I am trying to do is restore some parity.

I ask unanimous consent that these letters from not only the Alaskan tribes but from the Californian tribes I just mentioned be printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows:

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Ms. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, I have other concerns with this Transportation bill. I have mentioned the Denali Commission several times today. I have joined my colleague, Senator Begich, in filing an amendment to this bill that would restore the Denali Commission's transportation program--an incredibly important program to our State. I have also raised concerns about a provision within the banking title that relates to our Alaska Railroad.

These are concerns that, while they might not register fully with all of our colleagues here in the Senate, to Alaska they are critical. Our transportation needs are different. Some might say they are unique. But we have risen to the challenge with limited funding and smart people trying to do good things to connect us in ways that make sense.

Through the work of the Denali Commission, our IRR funding, and our Alaska Railroad, we have been engaged in building up the transportation infrastructure of the Last Frontier. In order to continue the progress that we've made thus far, I ask for your support and consideration to address the problems I've outlined with this legislation.

With that, I thank my colleague from Oregon for giving me some additional time this afternoon.

I yield the floor.

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