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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 61· No. 6 > ISTEA's Tribal Technical Assistance Program Legacy

May/June 1998
Vol. 61· No. 6

ISTEA's Tribal Technical Assistance Program Legacy

by Nelda Bravo

Many within the transportation community are familiar with the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP) technology transfer centers and the services they provide to officials of local governments. Few know that LTAP's scope was expanded by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991, which authorized the program to directly serve Native American tribal governments. During the past six years, six LTAP centers have opened in key areas around the country to meet the distinctive needs of Native American tribal governments.

Program History

With the passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975, tribal governments began exercising their authority to assume federal actions and make those actions tribal functions. While tribes have the authority to assume federal transportation functions, these functions have largely remained a federal operation handled through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Most tribes had neither the resources, including experience, nor opportunities to develop viable transportation management organizations.

In the 1980s, the lack of basic skills and infrastructure prevented tribal governments from taking advantage of the services that were being provided to rural transportation agencies and to those in small urban areas by LTAP and its predecessor, the Rural Technical Assistance Program (RTAP). Without much of the basic support that most state and local transportation officials have, tribal governments had no real access to the existing system of transportation-related education and funding.

Tribal representatives persuasively presented this case to Congress in committee hearings while ISTEA was in its drafting stages, and language aimed at addressing the problem was included in the legislation. It called for FHWA to establish at least two centers that would " ... provide transportation assistance ... and training ... to American Indian tribal governments." ISTEA also urged states to include tribal leaders in transportation decision-making, and it enabled the secretary of the interior to reserve BIA funds associated with the Indian Reservation Roads (IRR) program to help finance the centers.

"The ISTEA language took the emphasis off the BIA and put it directly on the tribes," said BIA transportation specialist Ed Hall. Hall is also a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation - the Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan - and he was involved along with FHWA representatives Ray Griffith and Janet Coleman in the program's early planning sessions. Hall explained that providing technical assistance to tribal governments is complex, "because there is a whole variety of response and infrastructure and types of capabilities out there, and you have to meet each one on its own basis. You can't just assume tribal governments are the same throughout."

To accommodate these differences, the planners of the Native American Local Technical Assistance Program (NALTAP), also known as the Tribal Technical Assistance Program (TTAP), incorporated the broad, flexible guidelines that have successfully guided the state LTAP centers for more than 15 years. NALTAP objectives include:

  • Make tribal outreach a key aspect of the program - moving classes, workshops, and other training to sites where they are needed rather than holding events at the centers or at hub locations.
  • Have center staff regularly solicit opinions from members of local tribal colleges and governing bodies. Tribal members with engineering, regional planning, or other pertinent experience could actively fill positions on center staffs.
  • Plan programs to identify and respond to tribal needs.

In meeting these objectives, TTAP personnel had wide latitude in the design and delivery of specific activities and projects. In other words, the program was planned to be broadly discretionary, enabling both the providers and the users to make the best possible use of the human and institutional resources available to them.

"We attempted to encourage partnerships," said Bill Zaccagnino of FHWA's Office of Technology Applications, describing his agency's initial involvement in the process. "We just started it. Now, the centers are carrying it on."

TTAP Centers train tribal members for commercial driver's licenses.TTAP Centers offer commercial driver's license training to assist tribal members to obtain operator licenses so that they can operate heary trucks and machinery.

Regional Centers in Action

FHWA, realizing that two centers would not be sufficient to meet the needs of the tribes, established six TTAP centers. Within three years of ISTEA's passage, four centers opened at land grant universities in Colorado, Michigan, Montana, and Washington state, and a supplemental program was established in Alaska. Since then, centers opened in Oklahoma and California.

TTAP centers and state LTAP centers have the same underlying mission - to help develop a sound transportation system through training, technical assistance, and technology transfer. However, the TTAP centers assist tribal governments in developing intergovernmental coordination, transportation planning, and project selection. TTAP centers also focus on tourism as an economic development strategy. The basic contract elements are the same for each NALTAP and state LTAP center:

  • Publication of a quarterly newsletter.
  • Development and maintenance of a mailing list.
  • Technology transfer through distribution of technical publications, videos, CD-ROMs, and software and through technical assistance both in the field and from the center by telephone.
  • Design and delivery of classes, workshops, and other training activities.
  • Planning and implementation of special projects.
  • Evaluation and solicitation of client feedback followed by appropriate changes in programs and activities.

Through training and special projects, the regions and tribes show their distinctive cultural, economic, political, and geographic differences.

Technology Transfer and Training Program for American Indians at Colorado State University

This region encompasses Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. Generally, it includes small and moderately sized tribes that own small amounts of land or have few road-miles on their reservations. However, the region also contains the Navajo Nation, the tribe with the largest population and greatest number of IRR miles.

At the heart of the Colorado TTAP program is the Tribal Roads Scholar Program, a series of workshops presented three or four times a year. The program includes several standard LTAP-style courses, such as "Drainage" and "All About Pavements," but the most popular courses - "Transportation Planning," "PL 93-638 Contracting," and "IRR: Rules of the Game" - focus on process, underscoring the unique and crucial roles of the TTAP centers.

The special interest of the tribes in these courses is explained by program manager Ron Hall, an attorney and a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes.

"Fixing a pothole is the same wherever you are. A certain quality of gravel, and that's the engineering thing, and the engineering component equates between the [state and tribal] programs. But it's how you get the money to get the gravel; it's the processes of how you get to the on-the-ground activity that are very different [for county-level transportation officials and for tribes]. It's an entirely different mechanism for funding and representation and the whole decision-making process."

Members of tribes that already have IRR "2-percent funding" (2 percent of a tribe's total yearly IRR funds that are set aside for transportation planning) and of tribes that do "638" contracting (the means by which BIA construction and maintenance functions become tribal ones) come to these workshops to get a broader look at regional elements and standardized practices. Others from tribes that do not yet have these capabilities come to learn about transportation issues and how to apply for funding.

According to Hall, TTAP is not only improving tribal transportation planning and management; it is helping to improve relationships among the tribes and with local BIA agencies. For example, as part of the program last year, Hall and Michigan TTAP's Evan Fulton helped the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina assess the feasibility of contracting the Reservation Road Program. Providing assistance helps to foster positive relationships between the groups.

On the other hand, observing appropriate boundaries between groups is equally important to continue good working relationships. "We can't take something out [to the tribes] if they don't ask for it. That's been tried and shown not to work," said Hall.

Despite the successes, the Colorado TTAP and other regions need improved interactive telecommunications capabilities.

"There are so many groups involved in transportation, and they all have their functions and they're important players. For one local tribal employee to try to keep track of all that and stay involved is almost impossible," Hall said. "And so, if we can help that local person stay involved with what's going on, we've filled a huge gap there in terms of networking and integrating tribal transportation officials with the national transportation scene."

Fort Lewis Tribal College.

Salish Kootenai Tribal College.

Fort Belknap Tribal College.

Many tribal colleges provide transportation-related training through the TTAP program.

Because of the urgent need for educational, training, and reference materials that reflect the unique environment and challenges faced by tribal transportation planners, officials, and workers, Hall is developing The Tribal Road Manager's Desk Reference. This series of handy, updatable desk manuals consolidates all the standards, specifications, personnel positions, and processes applicable to the roads program. Another product is a manual about rights-of-way on Indian reservation roads - one of the most complex and tangled issues affecting tribal governments in their dealings with state, county, and municipal transportation agencies.

Oklahoma TTAP at Oklahoma State University

The Oklahoma TTAP - serving tribal communities in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas - has been operating for more than two years. As part of the Center for Local Government Technology, which is a technical assistance network that includes the Oklahoma LTAP center, the Oklahoma TTAP has "virtually instant access to an awful lot of other people and expertise," said Joseph (Jodie) Paden, manager of the Oklahoma TTAP. Another strength of the program is the ongoing advocacy of transportation-conscious and politically active tribes, such as those in the Oklahoma Tribal Transportation Council (OTTC), whose initiatives and interests are enthusiastically supported by the center.

The Prairie Band of the Pottawatomie, though small, is a good example of a transportation-conscious tribe. The tribe has dedicated a portion of its gaming revenues to creating and funding a transportation department. Contrary to popular belief, most tribal casinos do not turn great profits, and it is also unusual for a tribe to make such a strong commitment to transportation.

Like other TTAP officials, Paden is quick to point out that nothing happens overnight and modest, gradual gains are the general rule. For example, it took several visits and discussions with the Otoe-Missouria tribe before tribal representatives invited trainers to come to the reservation to conduct a workshop about commercial driver licensing. Subsequently, the trainers have been asked back several times to give the same workshop to different tribal members. Recently, the Otoe-Missouria requested a workshop on surveying.

"It'll catch on slowly, over time," Paden said. "That's how it was with the state LTAPs."

This and other programs' involvement with younger tribal members is another promising sign. Every year, the Oklahoma TTAP staff contacts the Oklahoma State University chapter of American Indian Students in Engineering and the Sciences (AISES) and offers scholarships to attend the national meeting of AISES. Because the 1997 meeting was relatively nearby, the TTAP was able to sponsor 30 students, who - along with a TTAP staff member - traveled in several vans to the national meeting in Houston.

"We're trying to encourage these kids to stay in engineering - get their degrees to take back to their tribes. There's plenty of aptitude, but you know, engineering's tough and a little impersonal," Paden said. He laughed and added, "Going through the curricula can get your little mind messed up - get you thinking nobody loves you anymore."

TTAP at Montana State University

The world-renowned scenic grandeur of this region made touristic development a central focus of the Montana TTAP center's work. In pursuing that interest, the center and its clientele in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and part of Nebraska enjoy an exceptionally strong alliance both with local tribal colleges and with the states. A significant portion of the program's yearly funding is dedicated to subcontracts with the colleges, an arrangement unique to this region.

Both the center and the colleges have worked closely with Travel Montana, the travel and touristic office of the Montana Department of Commerce. Travel Montana led a tourism-assessment study and operated a seed-money program called the Community Tourism Assessment Program.

Center director Steve Jenkins described the joint effort and some of its benefits: "Travel Montana selected Fort Belknap [Reservation] as one of the projects [in 1995], and then [in 1996], they selected the Blackfeet Reservation [in] Browning. So, we worked with them through the study process." Through their participation in those case studies, program personnel gained an increased understanding of the two communities' hopes and concerns about tourism and other issues, and the staff is now putting together a travel and tourism workshop based largely on material and information gathered during that time.

In response to other tribal interests, program personnel teach workshops on winter survival, surveying and construction, work-zone traffic control, and earning a commercial driver's license.

"We've done an incredible amount of that [commercial driver's license training]," said Jenkins. "One of our trainers, Al Minaugh, an Assiniboine from Fort Belknap, spent a month doing that up on the Blackfeet Reservation, and I think of the 40-some-odd people he trained, every one of them passed the exam."

Transportation planning and "638" contracting are also popular course topics in the region. Most tribes have assigned planners, who are partially funded out of the 2-percent self-determined planning funds. However, this region and Montana, in particular, boast an unusually high number of dedicated transportation planners and an especially cooperative relationship with BIA.

"You know, the BIA has been very good at listening to those planners and finding out what the tribe's priority is in terms of roads," said Jenkins. Several of the reservations, including the Salish Kootenai, the Rocky Boys, and the Flathead, are now doing their own road maintenance work. This is a positive trend that TTAP centers are committed to supporting.

TTAP at D-Q University in California

Founded in 1996, this is the newest TTAP center, and it has the unique distinction of being part of a tribal college, D-Q University. ("D" and "Q" are the initials of two Native American deities. One is Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent of the Aztecs; the other's name can be spoken only by those who worship it.) The D-Q Center serves more than 100 reservations, rancherias, and other small tribal communities in California and 27 in Nevada.

Through an initial series of workshops designed to identify regional needs, those conducting the workshops found that transit systems and transportation organizations were recurrent topics of interest for many tribes.

Like transit programs, tourism has already been identified as a major tribal interest. The region has exceptional natural resources, and there's a growing sense among the tribes that, with careful planning and management, the natural resources could be responsibly used for economic development. TTAP hopes to use BIA's Ed Hall, who has extensive experience in that field, as a resource for exploring that possibility.

TTAP at Michigan Technological University

While other regions serve more tribes, no region covers as many states or has as many tribal communities with minimal or no IRR road-miles. There are 14 states in this region, ranging from Minnesota, south to Louisiana, east to Florida, north to Maine, and then back west to Minnesota.

The tribes in this region are less interested in broad-based transportation planning and management than in the western regions because there are few IRR road-miles. For example, Red Lake in Minnesota, which is by far the largest tribe in this TTAP region, has only 200 IRR road-miles (322 IRR road-kilometers). Typically, the number of roads in this region ranges from zero to 10 or 15. Therefore, the region focuses on technical assistance services and customized materials to fit the circumstances of the individual tribes.

Evan Fulton, an anthropologist and former program manager of the center in Michigan, said that he discovered that "the most interest comes if you can say to the tribe, 'You know, if there's a particular project ... or issue you want to work on, we can provide you with some training or technical assistance.'"

One form of technical assistance service was requested by the Oneida tribe of Wisconsin. They wanted the center to provide a series of workshops for tribal construction personnel on heavy equipment operation and safety. "So, they could then turn around and go to a union certification course they were able to test right out of and get a certificate saying they'd met the union requirement for doing that kind of work," said Fulton. In other cases, responding to a specific tribal need means working with another service organization.

"We have to develop ways in which we can supplement our program by accessing other programs that are ongoing and that have more funding," said Fulton, expressing a common theme among TTAP leaders. At the 1996 Annual National LTAP Meeting in New Orleans, he introduced some members of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians to staff from the Alabama LTAP who were better able to provide the Poarch Band with the particular technical services they needed.

Similar connections are beginning to develop between state transportation agencies and the tribes. Fulton recently approached the West Virginia Department of Transportation (DOT) with the idea of establishing a tribal transportation authority that would work as a liaison between the tribes and the state. The North Dakota DOT is considering the creation of a tribal desk, and Minnesota recently appointed a state Indian commissioner.

Fulton and his colleagues see the ultimate goal of such developments as "ongoing programs that are communicating at the state, the federal, [and] the county level and that include tribes in the planning process. So, they're participating in the decision-making. They're able to integrate their transportation systems and plans and needs with those of the surrounding community. ... I think tribes can do that. I think states can do that. But before that happens, there needs to be a lot of discussion, and a lot of people need to meet, drink some coffee, shake hands, talk. And that needs to happen in small groups."

Northwest Tribal LTAP at Eastern Washington University

This program is known in and beyond its region as a pioneer in partnership building. Its work with tribal and state officials in Washington, its home state, is considered a model in the field. According to Dick Winchell, the program's supervisor, two factors in particular have helped to define the program. The first is that its home base, the Department of Urban Planning at Eastern Washington University, has a history of Native American programs and studies in several core areas, including transportation, and recently the department established within its degree program a specialization that focuses on tribal planning. The second is that the region's tribes have always been leaders in furthering tribal transportation interests.

"Our strongest point is that we were created in response to requests from a tribal organization, Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest Indians, that serves 50 tribes in the region," Winchell said. Regional tribal backing also fuels the program's outreach to tribes not yet active in the area of transportation planning. During a 12-month period in 1995 and 1996, the center conducted more than 25 workshops at various tribal headquarters for elected leaders and staff to provide basic information about tribal transportation issues.

Winchell sees this kind of preliminary basic training as an ongoing function of NALTAP as new tribal councils and staffs come along and as transportation programs change. An example of that change is seen through the gradual tribal takeover of functions that had normally been handled by BIA.

Winchell and his colleagues see supporting both the tribes and BIA in that process as part of NALTAP's job, which reiterates the importance of working to resolve issues and promote cooperative relationships among state and tribal transportation agencies. There too, Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest Indians has been instrumental in providing the region and the center with a sense of direction.

"[Four years ago] they told us they wanted to work more closely with [Washington] state," said Winchell. The state was receptive, and a meeting was arranged "to create a forum in which Washington DOT staff and all the different bureaucracies would meet with the tribes and identify and discuss issues."

Many of those issues revolved around tribal sovereignty. After an initial misunderstanding about what tribal sovereignty really entails - both legally and for fund-accessing mechanisms, which differ drastically from those of local governments - the state responded in an exemplary way.

"They created a separate book for us of funding process, scheduling, and contact information and have been dealing with both NALTAP and tribal representatives on a regular and productive basis ever since," Winchell said.

The View Down the Road

In its relatively brief lifetime, the program has gained a great many supporters in both the private sector - including industry, professional associations, and nonprofit social and economic development groups such as the Ford Foundation - and in the public sector among state, local, and tribal governments whose representatives have become acquainted or familiar with its work.

TTAP centers have formed cooperative relationships with many groups. These relationships are just the beginning of an extremely productive long-term effort. For example, many of the approximately 51,000 reservation road-miles (more than 82,000 reservation road-kilometers) wind through and connect some of this continent's most scenic and unspoiled areas. While a majority of tribal members have a strong bias against the commercialization of their natural and cultural resources, they are also gradually exploring - with TTAP support when requested - possibilities for developing eco-tourism and other road-related projects that would foster economic growth and still preserve - and even reinforce - tribal values.

Based on the progress made so far, it's reasonable to expect that an adequately funded TTAP would have several important results:

  • Steady increase of the tribe's ability to effectively take on more of the functions formerly administered by BIA.
  • Broadening and strengthening of the program personnel's role as facilitators of mutually beneficial relationships between tribal transportation officials and the highway and transportation community at-large.
  • Further development and refinement of transportation products specific to tribes. This would increase the program's efficiency and effectiveness.

    These results correspond to the goals of the Native American LTAP, whose providers believe that once the importance of transportation planning and management is realized and acted on, the move toward transportation self-sufficiency is well underway.

    Nelda Bravo works for the state and local programs team in FHWA's Office of Technology Applications. She co-manages the 57 LTAP centers. These centers provide training and technical assistance to local transportation providers in all 50 states and Puerto Rico and to six Native American tribal governments. She graduated from Texas A&M University with a bachelor's degree in Spanish and a master's degree in English.

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