The United States might lag other countries when it comes to availability of public transit, but there are nations within our nation that fail to even meet America’s low expectations. Much has been done to address the disparity in transit options facing Native Americans, but far more remains.
Starting from a low baseline
Pre-colonial America didn’t have the transportation infrastructure to which the European newcomers were accustomed. The settlers complained about the hardships of transatlantic passage, but still it was something they had. Then again, Native Americans weren’t compelled to flee tyranny, religious intolerance and petty warfare; besides, they had three times the land mass on which to up and move if things got too hostile with the neighbors. The tribes of the northern Plains, though, were quite skilled with building canoes and larger bullboats to traverse the Great Lakes for trade with each other and the Europeans.
On land, Native Americans didn’t see the wheel as a practical innovation until after contact with the Europeans. It’s not that they didn’t grasp the concept; wheels were often components of children’s toys, discs were ubiquitous spiritual symbols, and carts helped extend the empires of the cultures in what’s now Latin America. But the whole idea of transverse wheel pairs mounted on axles struck the original residents of the mud- and ice-packed future United States as just too high-maintenance to be any practical use. Dragging things on runners or carrying them in packs was just a lot less complicated.
Oh, and horses aren’t indigenous; they came over with the Europeans. The Native Americans were just really, really quick studies on equestrian matters.
Fast forward a few bloody centuries: Many of the federally recognized tribes have been resettled, willingly or not, on reservations which are now regarded, fondly or not, as home. One-third of all Native Americans – roughly 700,000 individuals – now contend with reservations’ lack of access to nutrition, education and health care as well as the cycle of poverty and dependence that engenders.
This is a familiar lament among rural Americans regardless of origin. Still, endemic poverty is a distinctive part of the Native American experience if not a unique one. More than 25 percent of Arizona’s San Carlos Apache Native American Reservation lives in extreme poverty – roughly $3,000/year per person. Nationally, that figure is 4 percent. The poorest county in America, Buffalo County, South Dakota, has a median household income of $21,658; the majority of residents live on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation.
Who’s paying the fare?
By no means is $30 million in U.S. Department of Transportation grant going to solve this, but at least it’s a start. These grants, via the Federal Transit Administration’s Tribal Transit Program, are earmarked to pay as much as 90 percent of a reservation’s capital, operating and third-party service provisioning with respect to transportation.
In addition to those TTP grants, tribal councils might also be eligible to receive separate DOT funding for senior and disabled riders. With a little bit of creative grant writing, they could also channel dollars set aside for Reservation Roads, Health Services and Tribal Industry for transit purposes. They can even double-dip into main till for rural transit, established by MAP-21’s Section 5311. (TTP comes under Section 5311c; there’s a difference.)
Yet, as with any grant process, there are winners and losers, and who gets how much money doesn’t always make intuitive sense.
Money well spent?
TTP isn’t a very deep pocket, and there are more than 300 communities which are eligible for grants. The best-funded project I could find was that of California’s Tule River tribe, which was able to secure $450,000 in 2012.
There are fewer than 2,000 Tule River Natives alive today, and only about 1,000 live on the rez. So what do 1,000 people need with $450,000 in bus fare?
The original purpose of the grant was to secure regular transit between the reservation’s single roadway to nearby Porterville, the biggest dot on the map between Fresno and Bakersfield. But soon after the grant application was submitted, Porterville found another way to fund free bus and demand-response service up Reservation Road. The grant money came through anyway and, according to a the tribe’s web site, was repurposed to building weatherproofed bus shelters and buying a passenger van to serve people living down remote paths deep in tribal land.
By comparison, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, with a population of around 6,500, has the distinction of not having a reservation; its people are scattered across parcels in seven counties. Members often have to commute hours each day from their homes on the parcels to jobs in town. Some have to travel 200 miles from their parcels – bought with their own money at market price – to take advantage of government services or participate in tribal rituals. These activities are concentrated in the Ho-Chunks’ central facilities in Black River Falls, halfway between Eau Claire and not much.
“The passage and implementation of MAP-21 two years ago has resulted in a significant decline in the funding that the Nation receives from the TTP,” according to a statement Ho-Chunk legislators prepared for a U.S. Senate committee hearing in 2014. “The decrease in funding will require the Nation to modify its Long Range Transportation Plan and curtail the size and number of road construction projects it can accomplish. The new MAP-21 funding formula has redistributed funding to some tribes at the expense of other tribes. The Nation understands that many tribes rely on this funding and therefore we are not asking for the formula to be changed again. We do however ask that Congress increase the overall level of funding”.
In the round of grants where the Tule River Tribe drew $450,000, the Ho-Chunk settled for $25,000.
Bottom line: Helping Native Americans live in dignity on their own land is certainly a worthy goal, and one on which advocates for public transit can make a significant impact. But it’s hard to see how that’s going to happen if funding levels remains miniscule and the grant process remains capricious.