LAKE HAVASU CITY — In front of an audience of Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) officials and state lawmakers, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye lobbied for funding policies that prioritize roads on tribal lands Oct. 24.
Begaye’s remarks came during the 20th Arizona Rural Transportation Summit, an annual event that brings together elected and appointed officials, transportation planners and engineers to determine how to stretch state dollars over more than 100,000 miles of Arizona roads.
According to ADOT data, the state is facing a $30 billion shortfall over the next 25 years — a deficit of more than $1 billion per year.
One of the top priorities on the Navajo Nation is improvements to 535 miles of school bus routes, which become impassable during inclement weather, Begaye said. The Nation pays as much as $3 million per mile to pave roads in rural areas, and he estimated it would cost upward of $1.1 billion to address all the bus routes.
“We need to be looking at new technology on those roads,” he said. “There are more cost-efficient ways to address these rural roads. There are smarter ways to spend the money.”
Begaye’s attendance marked the first time in the summit’s 20 years that tribal leaders were present. During a meeting with legislators from the Arizona’s rural districts, Begaye advocated changes in the state’s relationship with tribes.
For example, if lawmakers approve the modernization of tribal gaming compacts, the Navajo Nation could increase its annual gaming revenue — dollars that could be earmarked for transportation, Begaye said. Even better, gaming revenues and fuel excise taxes collected from Navajo lands could be designated specifically for Navajo transportation, he said.
Begaye urged state legislators to introduce laws that would uphold tribal sovereignty and streamline contracting. He specifically asked that ADOT stop requiring tribes to waive their sovereign immunity. Instead, parties should resolve any disputes through arbitration.
“This has always been a major obstacle,” he said. “We need to respect each other’s sovereignty and find ways to work together.”
Information provided by the Office of the President and Vice President