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Spokane Tribe will get a voice in transportation planning, a move that sparked controversy among Spokane officials

UPDATED: Wed., June 12, 2019

Jeff Lopez, a transportation systems operator and dispatcher with the Spokane Regional Transportation Management Center, watches the agency's 100+ traffic camera feeds on Dec. 4, 2018. Under a legislature approved this year, the Spokane Tribe of Indians will join the SRTC’s governing board. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Jeff Lopez, a transportation systems operator and dispatcher with the Spokane Regional Transportation Management Center, watches the agency's 100+ traffic camera feeds on Dec. 4, 2018. Under a legislature approved this year, the Spokane Tribe of Indians will join the SRTC’s governing board. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A new law tying state transportation funds to the inclusion of tribes on local transportation planning boards has its origins with the Spokane Tribe of Indians, but the effort to get tribal representation on the local council brought the political nature of the board into the open.

The law, which was sponsored by Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, requires regional transportation planning organizations to allow local tribes to be voting members on their boards. The tribes must have reservation or trust lands within the boundaries of the transportation organization. If a local planning organization does not open its doors to tribes, the region would no longer receive state transportation funding.

“It’s about respecting government-to-government relations, their sovereignty, their participation and their inclusion,” Riccelli said of why he supported the bill, which largely passed along partisan lines in the the House, 64-33, and the Senate, 27-19. It goes into effect Aug. 1, and the state’s 17 planning organizations have two years to comply with the new rule.

Despite his success, Riccelli continued to criticize Al French, a Spokane County commissioner who leads the board of directors for the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, the regional transportation planning organization, and who opposed the bill.

“Quite frankly, I was hoping the bill wouldn’t have to go through and that Commissioner French and others would move in that direction,” Riccelli said, before suggesting that French opposed the tribe’s request as political reprisal following French’s unsuccessful attempt to stop the tribe’s casino development in Airway Heights.

“Maybe Al’s resistance stems from gaming,” Riccelli said.

Mike Tedesco, executive director of the tribe who led the push to get tribal representation on SRTC, said the tribe went to Riccelli only after being ignored for nearly four years by French and others at the organization, which he called a “rinky-dink contraption of the Spokane political class to further their best interests.”

Tedesco pointedly criticized French, who Tedesco said has yet to contact the tribe about the new law.

“This is just par for the course. We get no response. Total silence. It’s gatekeeping. There’s no other way to put it,” Tedesco said. “Al is the gatekeeper of this thing. For whatever reason he doesn’t want tribes voting on the SRTC. He’s cowed the executive director and cowed staff and bullied his way through.”

Sabrina Minshall, SRTC’s executive director, referred questions to French.

French, more diplomatically, didn’t refer to Riccelli and Tedesco by name, but said SRTC’s plan always was to include the Spokane Tribe following the 2020 census, when new population numbers will help determine representation on the board. At that point, negotiations would begin among the many local cities, towns and other jurisdictions that sit on SRTC about how to fairly represent the county’s people and their transportation needs.

“The SRTC board is created by an interlocal agreement. Changes require 100% approval from all jurisdictions,” he said. After the last census, “It took us a year to negotiate. This is not something you do lightly. I don’t want to have to go through it multiple times. That was really the goal of the majority of the board at the time: Just do it all at one time.”

Beyond that, French said he was wary of the council including a sovereign nation, which he described as “an entity that contributes nothing to the sales tax on roads but they could be the deciding vote when it comes to road funding.”

“Now you’re bringing into that equation a sovereign nation that might or might not agree with the board. If they don’t agree with the board they may go and pull their sovereign card,” he said. Asked what what he meant by “sovereign card,” French said, “Quite frankly, I don’t know. That’s a question we have to ask. That’s a new element we have to be aware and cognizant of. It’s more a question than a statement.”

SRTC delivers millions in dollars every year

SRTC was created in 1962 by the federal government’s second big highway law. The first came in 1956, with the Federal-Aid Highway Act that funded construction of the 41,000-mile interstate highway system – still the nation’s largest public works project.

In 1962, the federal government revisited its successful highway program, which was still building the interstate system at a record pace. But it was dogged by overspending and lack of comprehensive planning. To remedy this, President John F. Kennedy called for requirements to ensure that federal highway and transit programs would be part of comprehensive and balanced urban transportation plans. When the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1962 was passed, it shifted planning responsibilities away from states to regions, and what became SRTC was created.

SRTC, which shares a boundary with Spokane County, has two similar roles. As a federally recognized Metropolitan Planning Organization, it doles out federal dollars. As a state-recognized Regional Transportation Planning Organization, it doles out state dollars.

Over the years, the responsibilities of SRTC – and similar organizations – has expanded, but ultimately remains the same: It formulates the region’s transportation policy and goals, and funnels millions of dollars to these projects.

Perhaps most importantly, the council creates a 20-year plan for the region’s transportation system, which is updated every five years. The plan is not project-based, but tries to predict what will be needed to move people and goods around the region.

Every year, SRTC delivers an average of $11 million in federal funds to the region. The funding has gone to recent projects that include Argonne Road preservation in the Valley, Bigelow Gulch improvements, Sunset Boulevard preservation, High Drive pedestrian linkage in Spokane and new sidewalks in Rockford.

In this context, the money at risk from Riccelli’s legislation is small. In the 2017-2019 biennium, the state allocated $4.9 million to regional transportation planning organizations. Of that, $310,000 went to SRTC.

Tied up in all of this is another responsibility for SRTC: to encourage coordination and collaboration between local governments and other agencies.

The board has representatives from Spokane County, the city of Spokane, Airway Heights, Cheney, Deer Park, Fairfield, Latah, Liberty Lake, Medical Lake, Millwood, Rockford, Spangle, Waverly, Spokane Valley, the Washington State Department of Transportation, Spokane Transit Authority and Spokane International Airport.

The Spokane Tribe has never been included, making SRTC an outlier, Riccelli said. There are 17 other transportation planning organizations similar to SRTC in the state. Eleven of them include tribal reservation lands within their planning area, and seven of those already have tribal membership.

“It hasn’t been a big deal in a lot of other areas,” Riccelli said, noting that the Northeast Washington RTPO, which covers Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties, has tribal representation on its board, including the Spokane Tribe due to the reservation’s location in Stevens County. “It’s working just north of here in what is sometimes a politically more hostile territory.”

Doug Cox, interim Tribal and Regional Coordination Office manager for WSDOT, said the new law was welcome since it helped fulfill WSDOT’s goal of “inclusion,” but said the law created some complexity by incorporating tribal trust land.

“Adding the clause about trust lands, that’s where the nuance comes from,” he said. Three RTPOs other than SRTC must include tribal representation that didn’t previously: the Quad-Country RTPO, which encompasses Lincoln, Adam, Grant and Kittitas counties; the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, with Clark, Skamania and Klickitat counties; and the Chelan-Douglas Transportation Council.

“They’re totally open to it,” Cox said of the regional organizations. “If they had known the tribes wanted to join, they would’ve had them.”

Spokane tribal interest in Spokane

With that in mind, and as already a member of the northern RTPO, the Spokane Tribe began plans to join SRTC in 2011, said Tedesco, the tribe’s executive director. It formally asked to join in 2015.

The reasons are plain enough, Tedesco said. The tribe has historic and continuing interests in the Spokane region, from the name of the city and county. Many of its members live in the county. The tribal transit provider, the Moccasin Express, comes to Spokane.

“In general, philosophically speaking, the tribe believes that when regional planning – whether it’s transportation or something else – occurs within the tribe’s ancestral lands, they want to be part of that conversation,” he said.

In a letter written to the SRTC board in April 2015, tribal chairman Rudy Peone, who has since been replaced by Carol Evans, noted the tribe “owns several parcels of land with Spokane County upon which the Tribe operates businesses and governmental programs.” Of the tribe’s 3,000 members, a “significant portion” live in Spokane County, Peone wrote.

Tedesco estimated that 20% of tribal members live in Spokane County. The tribe owns 308 acres in Airway Heights, including the 145 acres in trust, and another 5 acres in the city of Spokane, he said.

Peone’s letter also said that even though the tribe has a seat on SRTC’s Transportation Technical Committee, the large membership of that committee makes tribal input “diluted to the point of insignificance.”

“Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as a Tribal jurisdiction with the deepest ties to metropolitan Spokane, we have a vested ancestral interest to help influence the region’s future,” Peone wrote.

Tedesco said there was a financial argument to inclusion as well.

“The tribe brings new resources, new money, in the form of BIA transportation improvement funds for roads that impact the Spokane Tribe’s interest,” he said, referring to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. “It’s not the tribe taking money from anyone else. It’s bringing more money to the table.”

Riccelli, and a majority of his colleagues, agreed – as Tedesco figured he would.

“It occurred to us we were talking to the wrong people,” he said. “Marcus was the first legislator we talked to about it. He was game from the get go. That was some of the easiest advocacy I’ve ever done.”

Riccelli said he heard from the tribe in the fall, and was convinced of its arguments.

“The tribe walked me through a timeline on their frustration and their concerns with, in my opinion, being treated with government-to-government respect,” he said. “They were told to wait till after the next census. I can see why they’d be skeptical when they’re told to wait until after the census. It rings on hollow ears when you say to wait for the next census. We’re talking about a decades-long work to do what is right.”

French said he agreed that legislation was unnecessary, since he said the tribe was on deck to be included after 2020. He said the legislation created more problems than solutions. Over the next two years, SRTC will have to figure out a way to give the tribe a fair vote. In the past, SRTC has weighed jurisdictional votes based on a city or town’s population.

“The current make up on the SRTC board is based on population, whether it’s the city of Spokane or Waverly. But how do I identify a seat on the board where there’s no population other than trust land that is occupied by a casino?” French said. “I’ve got multiple interests to respect in this process. At some point they’ve got to be a voting member. But what does that look like? What the legislation has done, like all legislation, is create a bunch of questions.”

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