The San Juan County Commission in Utah is renewing efforts to restore the Indian School Bus Routes Maintenance Program in order to improve the school bus routes and roads serving students in the Navajo Nation. The U.S. Congress reportedly excluded the provision for these roads in the FAST Act, the latest federal transportation funding bill.
In a statement, the commission described the roads as “neglected dirt roads” and “inadequate,” and said that the drastic reduction in federal funds has led to the county using its own funds on these bus routes.
“Previously, San Juan County received $500,000 a year to fund Navajo roads, but now only receives $90,000. Since 2005, San Juan County has spent $11,056,628 of its own funds on Navajo school bus routes,” the statement read, adding that the county also provides services like healthcare, education, public safety and historical preservation to the tribal community.
School bus routes make up a total of 258 miles of road in the Navajo Nation communities of Utah. Of these, 87 miles are made up of dirt roads, which can make getting to school a long ordeal, with bus rides lasting up to two hours. On bad weather days, it is simply unviable. According to the commission, students were forced to miss 10 days of school last year due to a winter storm that made it impossible to get there. Replacing the dirt with gravel would cost an estimated $18 million.
Over the summer, the San Juan County Commission partnered with the Utah Navajo Chapter to enlist the support of Gov. Gary Herbert in the effort to bring back the Indian School Bus Routes Maintenance Program. Gov. Herbert then sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to be included in the next federal transportation law.
“The state of Utah, the Navajo Nation and local county officials are doing what we can to address transportation needs with limited resources,” the governor wrote. “I applaud current efforts by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Navajo Nation and local counties to streamline the environmental review process for roads on tribal lands by securing a categorical exclusion for placement of gravel on these roads. This action will optimize transportation funding by maximizing the investment of limited dollars in actual roadway improvement.”
Although the attempt at additional funding was unsuccessful, San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally and other supporters said they are undeterred, and that they vow to continue their efforts next year.
“Navajo students have the same constitutional right to get to school as all other students in Utah. These rights can’t be a reality without the building and maintenance of safe roads,” said Benally. “We are continually committed to solving these issues for the people of San Juan. We look forward to working with Gov. Herbert and (Navajo Nation) President Begaye, taking this issue to Congress again in January 2016.”
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