Jonathan Sims is a media producer and former appointed official at the Pueblo of Acoma. He covers news and writes a column on Indigenous People's issues for The Paper.

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Sometimes you just have to drive a road to understand how bad it may be. With that in mind, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will surely get a feel for the roads New Mexicans traverse daily, a good portion of which crisscross tribal land. His tour of New Mexico included a brief stop at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. On Weds. Nov. 16, the Secretary was able to meet with the members of the All Pueblo Council of Governors. The quick meeting was an important moment for Pueblos and other tribal leaders to share what their concerns and needs are for transportation in their communities.

This discussion comes on the heels of the state’s recent public meeting that asked for input regarding the I-40 corridor from Albuquerque’s Atrisco Vista to the state line. This corridor alone operates through many miles of tribal lands, as do many of our roads in NM. Some of these older roads that are in still in daily operation were built by the Bureau of Indian Affairs before federal guidelines for construction existed. So who ponies up the cost of repair, maintenance and upgrading to federal transportation standards? More often than not, tribes are held responsible for the upkeep, but the money is not nearly adequate and the process is competitive – meaning only a few projects get funded in full every year.

Santa Clara Governor J. Michael Chavarria made this statement directly to Secy. Buttigieg in regards to meeting with the Pueblos and other Tribal leadership. “What’s very important to understand, Secretary, we’re all unique. We’re not all the same, we’re all different. We all have different forms of political government. Secretary, you need to understand that this (meeting) allows significant time as well for culturally appropriate, relevant discussion. An interactive dialogue leading to actual joint decision-making. This is what’s very important. The public does applaud Congress in passing the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act. While these laws have not fully addressed all the transportation infrastructure needs of my Pueblo, they do represent substantive funding increases to help meet the needs of our people. However, we encourage Congress to ensure that all programs are available to tribes, but a 100 percent no-cost match. And I ask to use the Secretary’s authority to make that cost match irrelevant. These cost matches pose a financial hardship on all of our tribes and nations.”

Acoma Pueblos representative for the meeting, Charles Riley expanded upon Chavarria’s comments. “Tribes face challenges in the application process. Tribes must compete with states, local governments, counties and large metropolitan areas which have more resources, a greater number of individuals and expertise in-house. Many of our tribes here in the United States do not have the resources or expertise to apply for these grants. The requirement for matching funds for competitive programs is another barrier that we face. Although these tribes face receiving formula funds through the Federal Highway Administration Tribal Transportation Program, many tribes’ formula funds are inadequate to meet the road needs of their tribal transportation improvements and maintenance.”

He went on to provide an example: a Pueblo could have 311 miles of Bureau of Indian Affairs roads to maintain. This does not include tribal roads and other routes. The maintenance cost of this 311 mi is $900,000 annually. The Pueblo through the formula might receive $100,000 from the Feds. Who pays the difference? Tribes end up holding the bill.

NMDOT Tribal Liaison Ron Shutiva shared his thoughts. “The tribal leadership expressed their needs and concerns, especially with the Formula Fund, how tribes get their transportation dollars. Also the needs they have in building the capacities because many other pueblos especially don’t have enough monies to have a full-time individual to deal with transportation issues and concerns. So I’m glad that the tribal leadership brought it up. Our main goal is for him to be here and hear firsthand from the tribal leadership about the needs and concerns of our tribal lands.”

Buttigieg listened intently and took notes for over an hour. Some of the talk was with EV developments like that soon from nearby Santa Ana Pueblo, very specific road routes that need attention, and even toxic waste like that of WIPP crossing tribal lands. He closed with this statement. “We take the nation-to-nation relationship very seriously. I can tell you that comes from the president and what you do is a council, what you do individually, what your respective public governments and other tribal governments are doing, is work that we admire. I will candidly just say as a mayor who maintained roads and did battle with potholes and other maintenance issues for a living before I came into this role, I do not know how you do it with the formula dollars for maintaining the number of lane-mile roads that exist out here and [I] take to heart the point that you’re raising something that has been raised many times over about the issue of formula funds. We will be taking all of the insights and the examples and the experiences that you’ve shared back with us.”