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National Congress of American Indians

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Remarks As Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
National Congress of American Indians
Washington, DC
Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Thank you, Aaron.  It is a pleasure to be here.  I am grateful to the leadership of the National Congress of American Indians, especially President Fawn Sharp and Chief Executive Officer Kevin Allis, for this opportunity to discuss some matters of importance to Indian Country and our entire Nation. 

Much has been accomplished since my last visit here, during the February 2019 Executive Council Winter Session.  I’m very pleased to report that we are nearing the end of a successful three-year negotiated consensus rulemaking process.  It will establish a Tribal Transportation Self-Governance Program at the U.S. Department of Transportation.   

This program will help strengthen collaboration between Tribal nations and the United States.  It will provide a flexible, effective framework to collaborate on issues vital to the Tribal transportation self-governance program.  Its goal is to improve transportation infrastructure delivery in Indian country.  And it will reduce administrative red tape for Tribes receiving funding from the Department.    

Let me acknowledge Chief Kay Rhoads of Sac and Fox Nation and Head Councilman Joe Garcia of Ohkay Owingeh for serving as Tribal co-chairs on the negotiated rulemaking committee. 

The negotiated rulemaking committee will meet in early March to complete work on the final rule.  The Department must publish the new rule by June 1, 2020.  We’re on track to meet this date.

Let me also share another Department initiative that will help your communities.  As you know, rural infrastructure has been overlooked and neglected for far too long.  Nowhere is this neglect more acute than on tribal lands.  Indian reservation road networks are America’s most neglected and least developed.  Poor infrastructure compromises safety, impedes economic development and job creation and harms quality of life. 

The Department has a special program -- the Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success (ROUTES) Initiative – to close the gap in resources devoted to urban versus rural America – including tribal lands.  This new program will help rural communities access federal transportation grant funding and loan programs.  It also improves data sharing to help rural communities better analyze their transportation needs.  As part of this initiative, the Department established a ROUTES Council. It will aggressively reach out to rural communities – including Indian reservations -- to help you better identify and assess your transportation needs, and craft solutions.

From a safety point of view, rural America needs attention!  70% of America’s roadways are in rural areas.  Those roads carry 47% of America’s truck traffic.  Only 20% of Americans reside in rural areas.  Yet, 46% of traffic fatalities occur on rural roads. 

Until recently, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s discretionary infrastructure grant programs were skewed to urban areas.  Rural America is not looking for a handout. It’s merely looking for a fair share of federal resources, and we’re here to make sure that happens.   

The Department has 3 major priorities: 

  1. Safety is number one. 
  2. The second is rebuilding and refurbishing our country’s critical infrastructure.
  3. The third is to prepare for the transportation systems of the future by engaging with emerging technologies to address legitimate public concerns about safety, security, and privacy, without hampering innovation.

So I am gratified that the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma was one of nine participants in the Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program.  The participation of the Choctaw Nation in this program is helping the FAA craft rules to safely integrate drones into the National Airspace System.

The Choctaw Nation’s project has focused on agriculture, public safety and infrastructure inspections, using Beyond Visual Line of Sight and other complex operations.  The data obtained from these activities will be broadly applicable, and could extend to a wide range of operations and geographical locations.  So thank you for your contribution to this important project.

And let me touch on one more issue of mutual concern:  our shared commitment to end human trafficking.  The Department and its partners – including tribal leadership from all over the country -- are engaged in a high-profile effort to make the transportation sector a more effective force against the evil that is human trafficking. 

America’s roadways, railways, airways, and waterways are being used to facilitate this modern form of slavery.  So the transportation sector is in a unique position to help save victims of human trafficking from unimaginable suffering, abuse and despair.  And assist law enforcement in apprehending the perpetrators. 

Two weeks ago, the Department gathered together hundreds of transportation leaders to take a public stand against human trafficking.  Over 300 Transportation Leaders Against Human Trafficking pledges have been signed by corporations and organizations in every mode of transportation.  And Labor, and non-governmental organizations from across the country have signed on as well.  They have committed to training over one million employees to help fight human trafficking.

In addition, multiple initiatives are underway to increase awareness of human trafficking and equip transportation industry employees and the public with strategies to fight it. 

Human trafficking is happening all over this country.  So we are enlisting as many allies as we can to bring together our best efforts, the best strategies, and necessary resources to the battle against human trafficking.  The Department is grateful for your help in this important battle. 

Finally, today I’m also pleased to announce that nearly $9 million from the Fiscal Year 2019 Tribal Transportation Program Safety Fund will be awarded to 80 tribes for 91 projects in 18 States.  These funds will be used for safety planning and infrastructure improvements for tribal communities.  We look forward to working with you on infrastructure needs.

Thanks again for the opportunity to join you today.  I look forward to working with you to help create an even more effective partnership between the U.S. Department of Transportation, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives. 

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