TESTIMONY OF

LORETTA BULLARD, PRESIDENT OF KAWERAK, INC. FOR CONSIDERATION BY THE

SENATE ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS COMMITTEE

 

HEARING ON ALASKA TRANSPORTATION NEEDS

APRIL 14, 2003

 

            Thank you  Senator Murkowski and members of the committee for the opportunity testify.    My name is Loretta Bullard and I am President of Kawerak, Inc. Kawerak is a regional Native non-profit corporation and consortium of 20 federally recognized tribes in the Bering Straits Region of northwestern Alaska.    

 

Let me open my testimony by saying thank you. Thank you for holding this hearing in Alaska and for giving us this opportunity to present our needs and recommendations.  We’re pleased that Congress is focusing attention on our rural Alaska transportation needs. 

 

Kawerak is one of the few tribal organizations nationally – and the only tribal consortium – which has contracted to perform the entire Bureau of Indian Affairs "Indian Reservation Roads" (IRR) program under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. There is a distinct difference between contracting to construct a particular Transportation project and compacting to provide the entire IRR Program.  Basically, when you compact the entire program, the compactor is responsible for the full spectrum of the program, from planning, inventory and long term transportation plan development, to project selection, design, scheduling and construction.  Kawerak contracted the entire IRR program in 2001. Effective in 2003, we rolled the IRR program into our self-governance compact. 

 

I served as one of Alaska’s tribal representatives to the national negotiated Rule-making Committee for the IRR program. This committee was tasked to develop program rules and a funding formula. We just completed the final meeting in late March, 2003 and anticipate the final regulations will be published in time for the 04 BIA IRR fund distribution. 

 

Alaska's ground transportation system is very undeveloped in comparison to the rest of the United States.  Most villages in rural Alaska are not connected to the highway system. By noting this, however, we are not suggesting that the leading transportation need in rural Alaska is for large-scale connecting routes between villages (though the need may exist in some areas).  Rather, we see the greatest need in the area of basic infrastructure development at the village level.

 

Many rural Alaska village streets are no more than unimproved dirt paths, and are third world compared to similarly sized communities in the Lower 48 states.  Virtually any development a village wants to do, whether it is new housing units, a new landfill, or bulk fuel tanks, access to a water source, a new sanitation lagoon or gravel site, requires road development.   Unimproved village streets with no winter snow removal – not uncommon in our smaller villages – turn into impassable quagmires during the spring.  Once the roads/beaten paths dry out, the mud turns to dust.  Dust from traffic on gravel and unimproved streets fouls subsistence meat racks, berries and other vegetation and is a major health hazard for children and the elderly in many of our villages.  I have attached photos of “streets” in our villages (attachment 1) – just to give you a sense of what is actually on the ground in rural Alaska.

 

Because there are no roads between communities, snow machines are routinely used for inter-village long distance winter travel.  There is a huge need in Alaska for winter trail staking.  Each year lives are lost due to snow machiners simply losing the trail, falling through river or sea ice, or freezing to death in arctic blizzard conditions.

 

   Unfortunately, our small city governments have little tax base and our tribal governments have none at all.   Capital improvements are dependent on outside funding.  Village road projects are rarely constructed by the State DOT, because in many instances, villages are not able to meet the match requirement. 

 

We respectfully request your assistance to help our villages develop local infrastructure and to literally get us out of the mud and into the 21st century. Following are our recommendations.

 

Indian Reservation Roads Program

 

We encourage Congress to make amendments to the Indian Reservation Roads program during the reauthorization process.  IRR funding, when it is available, is an ideal funding source for village Alaska because it can be used for a local match to leverage other funding sources.   IRR funds and projects can also be administered through Indian Self-Determination Act contracts, which means that Native hire rules apply and the project can be run locally.   However, there are many unresolved problems with the IRR program, not least of which is insufficient funding and unequal access to the program.  

 

The IRR Negotiated Rulemaking Committee worked very hard to develop rules that would correct some of the problems in the program, including inventory problems. However, we were not able to address all the problems in the negotiated rule-making process and so are presenting recommendations for your consideration. .

 

Inventory Amendment.  One of the major problems with the existing IRR program is that the funding formula used to distribute funds nationally is based primarily on an inventory of IRR routes, and the inventory has gaping holes.  For Alaska villages, a true inventory has never been prepared.   Alaska's “inventory” comes from a 1993 BIA Area Plan, which was a planning document compiled from project requests submitted by the villages.  At the time, the villages were told to identify one needed project.   About 70 villages were not even included in the 1993 Area Plan.   In addition to missing entire Native communities, the BIA’s inventory data has other flaws such as simply not having complete or current construction cost data for large parts of Alaska.

 

We were not able to reach consensus on major changes to the existing IRR  funding formula, but one of our successes was that for the years FY 2000 through 2002, additional funds were made available to tribes for planning, capacity building, and related transportation activities.  This was $32,500 per tribe in 2000 and $35,000 in 2001 and 2002.  Prior to this allocation, Alaska Native Villages received less than $3,000 per year to do transportation planning from the 2% Tribal Transportation Planning funding pool, which wasn't enough to do much of anything.

 

This influx of funding meant our villages were finally able to begin to fully participate in the IRR program - most villages that received the funds used them to develop their first true inventory of roads and transportation needs.  Kawerak did this collectively for our villages, but many other villages hired consultants or did the work themselves.  

 

However, once inventory updates began to be submitted to BIA on a large scale, we found that the BIA was applying a "2%" limit to inventory increases.  Having made funds available specifically for inventory updates and transportation planning activities, the BIA DOT applied a 10 year old policy to accept only 2% of the submitted inventory increases, calculated annually on a per BIA Region basis.  In Alaska we were limited to 365 miles in the 2001 update  (2% accumulated from 1993), and since then, it is about 45 miles per year.   Further, many of the inventory submittals made were not acted upon or were returned.   Imagine the frustration of the villages in Alaska that used these funds to update their inventories - as they were supposed to, only to learn after months of waiting that their inventory submissions had not even been processed.  

 

The current formula and inventory system is based on an implicit BIA policy decision made more than 10 years ago which concluded the basic BIA road system had already been built and that future IRR funds would be used to improve the existing system.  The system was defined as a "BIA" system rather a tribal system.   The premise was false, since many Alaska villages had never received IRR funding or construction at all, much less had their basic road needs identified or addressed.  Alaska Native village were just as eligible by law for IRR services as any tribe in the Lower 48 states, but had barely been served at all.  We are concerned that, while we specifically excluded incorporating the 2% policy into the draft IRR regulations, BIA will continue to apply the policy, therefore, limiting Alaska to receiving funds based on an extremely incomplete and inaccurate inventory.

 

Accordingly, we are requesting Congress to enact a specific fix to Alaska's inventory problem by requiring that village streets and primary access routes be included in the BIA inventory, with a limitation on access routes such that only the route segments within the village corporation boundaries be included.   I have attached a copy of this language to my written testimony (attachment 2).  We believe this is necessary to put Alaska on an equal footing with tribes in other areas. In the Lower 48 states the basic inventory of most tribes had been developed by 1993.  In Alaska it was not – and the application of the 2% policy, limit unfairly limits our villages to a miniscule representation of actual need.

 

Appropriations.  Kawerak strongly supports increasing the national IRR appropriation to at least $500 million annually.   The IRR program is seriously under-funded.   The BIA's data identifies the IRR construction need across the country at $10.8 billion, yet under TEA-21, the IRR authorization level was $275 million annually.  It would take about 40 years to meet the need at that rate.  Funding for IRR roads did not proportionately increase as much as state funding did under TEA-21.

 

NCAI Proposal

 

            The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) sponsored a tribal working group that developed a series of recommendations for legislative improvement to the IRR Program.   Kawerak staff participated in this workgroup, even though we are not members of NCAI, as did several other representatives from Alaska.

 

            In addition to requesting funding increases to the IRR program and the BIA Roads Maintenance program, which we support, the NCAI draft makes a number of programmatic changes.   We strongly support the programmatic changes included in the NCAI bill, as well as the funding increases.

 

            To summarize these briefly, the NCAI bill would:

 

Ø     Establish a pilot program to enable tribal contractors to contract directly with the Federal Highways Administration rather than through BIA.    We strongly support this, simply because it would eliminate a "middle man" and reduce the bureaucratic processes necessary to get things done.

 

Ø     Clarify that the IRR program is fully subject to PL 93-638 contracting on the same basis as other BIA programs.   This should not be necessary after TEA-21, but it still is because the BIA continues to take the policy position that it can simply label certain functions as beyond the reach of PL 93-638 contracting without going through the analysis of whether the activity is question really has to be performed by a federal employee.   Normally under PL 93-638, a function or activity of the BIA is subject to tribal contracting unless it is inherently federal for constitutional or statutory reasons.

 

Ø     Continue the $35,000 per tribe allocation for administrative capacity building.

 

The above is just a portion of the NCAI proposal, which was intended to be a comprehensive overhaul of the IRR program.   It has wide support nationally.   Although much of the proposal deals with funding increases, I would like to stress that the programmatic changes are important as well.

 

Maintenance Funding.   I would like to highlight maintenance funding.   The NCAI proposal would create a new IRR maintenance program within the highway bill, funded at $70 million nationally.   It also expresses Congressional intent to increases the DOI appropriation for roads funding to $127 million nationally, a $100 million increase from current levels.

 

Regardless of what amounts are reasonable to expect in funding increases, poor maintenance of IRR routes is a critical problem.   Both Federal Lands Highways and BIA have a responsibility to ensure that projects constructed with IRR funds are adequately maintained.  On most IRR facilities, the responsible party for maintenance is the BIA.  But the BIA road maintenance program is funded nationally at only $26-27 million per year.   In Alaska very few communities even have access to these maintenance funds.  Road Maintenance is in the Tribal Priority Allocation (TPA) part of the DOI budget, which means that it is effectively buried within the overall BIA budget.

 

Obviously, the construction need for IRR roads is never going to go down if they are not being adequately maintained.   Nationally the IRR construction program, which should be at least partially for new road construction, ends up being spent on reconstruction projects that would not be necessary if maintenance was adequate.   We hope that some increases can be targeted specifically for maintenance.

 

S. 295, Denali Transportation System Act

 

            We support and appreciate S. 295, which would authorize appropriations of $450 million per year to the Denali Commission to develop rural road infrastructure in Alaska.    The Denali Commission has been very effective in targeting dollars to rural needs, and in cutting through federal red tape that often exists in regard to construction projects.

 

            However, we have some concern that if funding at this scale becomes available, some of the political dynamics driving Denali Commission activity may change.   We would hope that the legislation, or the Denali Commission itself through its internal processes, will ensure that local decision-making drives the project decisions and that the funding not be devoted simply to large-scale access projects.  We recommend that a major focus of these funds should be local village infrastructure needs. 

 

            Rather than simply comment on S. 295, we participated in an Alaska Federation of Natives workgroup that developed separate proposed legislation, which we have captioned the "Alaska Native Village Transportation Program."   We refer to this as our "get us out of the mud" proposal.

 

Alaska Native Village Transportation Program

 

            A conceptual version of new legislation for an Alaska Native Village Transportation Program is attached to my written comments. (attachment 3)   We view this as something that might be melded into the Denali Commission bill in some fashion, or which could be a new stand-alone program – essentially supplementing the IRR program.

 

            Basically, the proposal would be to appropriate funding starting with $8 million in 2004, $15 million in 2005, and increasing in $5 million increments until capping at $30 million in 2008 and 2009.    Some key features are:

 

Ø     It would establish Native transportation authorities in each of the 12 ANCSA regions, which could be the existing regional for profit or non-profit corporations or a new regional tribal entity.   The regional transportation authorities would develop regional transportation plans and prioritize projects.

 

Ø     It would establish a statewide Native transportation commission made up of appointees from each of the regional transportation authorities that would determine funding allocations among the regions and coordinate transportation planning among the regions and other government entities.

 

Ø     Funding would be administered by FHWA, but subject to PL 93-638 contracting rules, which would include Native hire, the ability to match funds, etc.

 

Ø     Funding is phased in order to enable the transportation authorities and statewide commission to get started and in recognition of the fact there is a long lead-time in project development and design before roads go to construction.

 

Ø     Up to 15% of funds for construction projects could be retained for future maintenance.

 

In developing this proposal, one of our major concerns was simply that if there is an additional influx of transportation funding for Alaska, some portion of funds should be specifically targeted to local village projects.    At construction costs in excess of $1 million per mile for new gravel roads built to federal standards, even a large influx of funds could be used on just a few large-scale projects.

 

Although the creation of regional transportation authorities and a statewide commission may seem cumbersome, we feel that this is a realistic balance between the need to spread funding to different parts of the state, the huge size and differing topography and climate of the state (map – attachment 4), the need to preserve local control and decision-making, while still effectively prioritizing funds and retaining economies of scale.

 

We have attempted to keep the good features of the IRR program without simply asking for an Alaska set-aside of IRR funds.   We feel that the latter would unduly disrupt the national IRR program, and a set aside of IRR funding would still be subject to all of the BIA bureaucracy.

 

In conclusion, thank you for the opportunity to testify. If we can further explain our legislative proposals, please feel free to call on us at any time. Thank you.