Nolan Stout

WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. Department of Transportation is awarding nearly $41 million in grants to improve public transportation and increase safety, largely to indigenous communities, including five in Montana.

One set of grants awarded on Thursday will earmark $20.9 million for Indigenous communities to reduce roadway deaths and serious injuries. The other set is more generally focused on improving "access to transit" and will support areas experiencing long-term economic distress with $20 million in funding.

The grant money is connected to a range of federal programs and policies, including the DOT's National Roadway Safety Strategy, which aims to create the "safest transportation system in the world" in the United States. Also involved is the Federal Transit Administration's Areas of Persistent Poverty program, which provides transit grants to places that have had a poverty rate of at least 20% over the past 30 years.

The latter program focuses on "forging connections for people who need accessible transit the most," Nuria Fernandez, head of the Federal Transit Administration, said in one news release announcing the funding.

"Transit is the great equalizer, providing rides for those who do not have a car or cannot drive,” Fernandez stated. “[P]articularly in rural and tribal areas, having access to an affordable, reliable bus ride can mean the difference between isolation and opportunity.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who was also quoted in twin news releases about the grants, likewise described improved transit as an equalizer for communities.

"Across the country, people who live in low-income rural, urban, and Tribal communities are less likely to own a car and more likely to rely on public transit," Buttigieg stated. "Through this program, we are bringing affordable, accessible public transit to the very communities that need it the most, making it possible for more people to access jobs, resources, and opportunity."

One set of funding focuses on Indigenous communities — communities that have historically seen underfunding on matters like transportation. Projects in Montana include the Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux, Blackfeet, and Chippewa Cree.

“The grants we’re announcing today will improve the lives of everyone who lives and travels on Tribal lands,” Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt said in a news release.

Eighty-eight tribal projects received funding through the Federal Highway Administration’s Tribal Transportation Program Safety Fund, with new money to support pavement markings, rumble strips and improved pedestrian infrastructure, among other upgrades. Of that pot, the largest individual grant is $1.57 million for the Colorado River Indian Tribes to improve pedestrian safety on their reservation northwest of Phoenix.

As for the other pot of grant money, it aims more broadly to improve United States transportation infrastructure in general. Some possible uses for the grants include starting or improving service on public-transit networks, modernizing fleets, improving bus stops and launching scheduling apps.

Of those funds, three projects had the largest grant amount at $785,400 — all of them projects by city or state officials.

The first is for the San Diego Association of Governments for planning and engineering to improve the San Ysdiro Transit Center, a trolley stop and transportation hub near the border with Mexico. The other two are for transit studies: One in the city of Fresno, California, and a separate statewide study in Alaska that will be run by the Alaska Department of Transportation.