The Spokane Tribe of Indians will receive $1.8 million through a grant from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration for road infrastructure improvements, the department announced Friday.
In a press release, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross touted the award as a way to spur economic development and drew a connection to President Donald Trump’s signature legislative achievement, the 2017 tax cut bill that created a tax incentive for investment in low-income areas.
“The Trump Administration is dedicated to advancing economic growth and business development in tribal communities throughout the United States,” Ross wrote. “Improved transportation infrastructure in a Wellpinit Opportunity Zone will increase economic activity and provide more employment opportunities for the local workforce.”
Spokane Tribal Business Council Chairwoman Carol Evans said the tribe applied for the grant to support its “sustainable community master plan,” and will use the funds to resurface paved roads in the Wellpinit area as well as improving dirt roads and replacing guard rails destroyed in a 2016 wildfire.
“We do have a long-range roads plan,” Evans said, “and we’ve never been able to keep up with that plan just because we don’t have sufficient funding.”
The Commerce Department said it expects the grant to generate 200 jobs and $13 million in private investment as part of the tribe’s plan to diversify the tribal economy.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, whose district includes the Spokane Reservation, hailed the investment and emphasized her support for the tax bill, which Democrats universally panned at the time as a giveaway to the rich.
“This Opportunity Zone project, made possible by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act which I supported in Congress, will improve infrastructure, create hundreds of jobs, and spur millions in private investment,” the Spokane Republican said in a statement. “Thank you to the Trump administration for rebuilding our aging infrastructure and supporting our communities in Eastern Washington.”
Evans said road infrastructure is an important part of the tribe’s “sustainable community master plan,” which includes improving access to groceries and a walkway to increase safety for students on their way to school .
“Development patterns on the reservation have not always led to an efficient use of the land,” part of the tribe’s master plan reads. “Sprawling development increases the costs associated with construction including the costs to operate and maintain infrastructure, such as roads, water, and sewer systems.”
The Spokane Reservation is one of 139 census tracts in Washington state and 11 in Spokane County designated as Opportunity Zones. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which Trump signed into law in December 2017, states can apply the label to up to 25% of their low-income census tracts, generally defined as areas with a poverty rate of at least 20 percent.
Investors who finance businesses in these areas through certain funds can defer and potentially lower their capital gains tax payments, a move intended to encourage investment in economically blighted areas. Some lawmakers, however, have criticized the program for benefitting relatively wealthy neighborhoods that fall within qualifying census tracts.
The Economic Development Administration, established by Congress in 1965, is an agency within the Commerce Department that provides grants and technical assistance to low-income communities.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate committee charged with transportation and infrastructure issues, also applauded the grant, without referring to the separate tax incentives. A press release from the Washington lawmaker, who is also a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, also cited her efforts to get coronavirus relief funds distributed to tribes quickly.
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