Oklahoma tribes' funding helps road projects across state
June 25, 2012

By JARREL WADE World Staff Writer

Published: 6/25/2012  2:22 AM

Last Modified: 6/25/2012  7:48 AM

David Maxville with APAC road construction uses a backhoe to grade a ditch beside a newly constructed road by the Osage Casino near Bartlesville. STEPHEN PINGRY / Tulsa World

Often seen only for flashy casinos, Oklahoma tribes have intricate governments that do construction work with local, county and state agencies, contributing millions every year to public roads in the state.

Oklahoma tribes, 44 in total, received almost $67 million in 2011 through a multi-agency federal agreement that administers road funding to all tribes in the U.S., according to U.S. Department of Transportation reports.

The Osage Nation, located in Osage County, receives about $4.7 million each year in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation and rebuilds several miles of roadway each year in the tribal nation, said R.J. Walker, director of the Osage Nation roads department.

"As far as where we try to focus on, we've built quite a bit of new casinos in the last several years so there has been a focus there, but at the same time, we've also met a lot of the safety needs (in our area) ... and collaborated with the county and met the needs of the whole area," Walker said.

The Indian Reservation Roads Program provides funds for the planning, designing, construction and maintenance of roads on Indian reservations, trust land, restricted Indian land and Alaska native villages, according to information on the Bureau of Indian Affairs website.

In Oklahoma, many of those areas are shared, and non-Indian Oklahomans benefit from the upkeep and construction of those roadways.

Nationally, the program has about 29,000 miles of roads under BIA jurisdiction and another 73,000 miles under state and local ownership, according to the website.

"We will sit down with the county and identify the needs for the project, and then we essentially negotiate roles and responsibilities," Walker said about the partnership the Osage Nation has with Osage County. "Our working relationship with the county is critical."

Osage and Cherokee road department officials said each road construction project begins with an agreement between county, city or state road departments, which provide varying degrees of funding, depending on the needs of the project.

The relationship between the tribes and the various local roads departments banks on good relationships as they reach agreements to fund projects that are mutually beneficial, officials said.

The tribes rely on the local government's resources that are already in place, while local city, county and state roads projects can often benefit from tribal funding, Osage and Cherokee road department officials said.

"Typically, in Osage County, I feel like we have a model relationship," Walker said.

In Osage Nation projects, Osage County typically funds utility movements and right-of-way planning, while the tribe funds the environmental clearances, inspections and equipment for construction contracts, Walker said.

The Cherokee Nation, which receives the most federal roads funding of any tribe in the state, typically handles material purchases, while county and state departments typically provide labor and equipment, said Michael Lynn, director of the Cherokee Nation roads department.

"We agree to work together to improve existing roads that need to be built to federal or state regulations," Lynn said.

Each year, the Cherokee Nation receives about $13 million in federal funding through the Indian Reservation Roads Program.

In addition to federal funds, the Cherokee Nation Roads Department receives additional funding through a state compact on motor fuel tax - about $1 million annually, and a motor vehicle licensing tax - about $1.5 million annually, Lynn said.

Each tribe's roads department sends a construction schedule for approval to the U.S. Department of Transportation that is based on prioritized needs for the nation, Lynn said.

In the next five to 10 years, the Cherokee Nation has about 200 lane miles on their construction schedule, he said.

Walker said he's proud of the "lane miles that we've been able to work on, and the importance of our relationship with our local communities, state and county, and how collaboratively, we can get a lot more done."