Discussions began May 19 on a new transportation bill and were highlighted by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson’s (D-SD) plea for rural transit.
Johnson who has been an advocate for American Indians in South Dakota presented the use of rural transit on the Pine Ridge Reservation and others.
“It is sometimes forgotten, but reliable and accessible public transit is vital in rural areas like South Dakota, just as it is vital in large urban cities,” said Senator Johnson. “Our public transit systems connect workers with employers, keep cars off congested roads, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and get people where they’re going safely and affordably.”
Native transportation in South Dakota can be an issue with gas prices as high as they are and a community that lives below the poverty line.
“This is a very important time to talk about public transportation. High gas prices are stretching families’ budgets across the nation, and where there is good transit service, taking a bus or train to work can make a big difference. Unfortunately, few Americans have that option,” he said during his speech.
In his opening statements, Johnson shared a letter he received from a constituent on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The letter reflected on the Oglala Sioux Transit bus system and what it has done for the tribal community since its launch in 2002.
Since 2006, the transit systems in South Dakota have received more than $25 million in federal funds with tribal communities receiving funding as well. The Oglala Sioux Tribe received $250,000 to purchase buses for the transit on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe received $200,000 to improve its existing system and the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe was awarded $230,668 for new vehicles, improving and expanding an existing system.
Johnson who became chairman of the Senate Banking Committee last year, heads a department in charge of authorizing the transit portion of the federal surface transportation program. This includes rural bus transit systems and urban mass transit.
“The current extension of transit and highway programs runs through September 30. Congress has produced 7 short-term extensions since 2009, so it’s time to get to work on this legislation. Getting a long-term bill done will not be easy, but I hope that improving transportation is a topic where both parties can find common ground,” he said.