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286 Miles of Tribal Road Gets a Facelift

PAGE, Ariz. – Most Navajo school bus routes in Arizona’s Coconino County are getting easier to navigate these days thanks to income from a county sales tax passed in 2014 for road maintenance. Students of the Navajo Nation will have a more comfortable ride and more reliable transportation to and from school, especially in inclement weather.

The Page Unified School District, which transports an average of 700 to 750 students on 16 routes daily, also will likely see a decrease in breakdowns, maintenance frequency and costs because of poor road conditions.

Proposition 403 will provide daily maintenance service to 286 miles of road that serve as school bus routes, as well as accommodating residents who go about their daily business. Vehicles from emergency, medical and volunteer agencies will also find the roads easier to negotiate.

Lena Fowler, who chairs the Coconino County Board of Supervisors, said residents use the roads to get water and firewood because some homes do not have electricity or running water. She added that while the focus is on the schools, the dirt roads are major arteries for the Navajo Nation. “These roads are used daily by people for going to work or shopping,” she said. “However these are school bus routes, so if we don’t maintain them and the buses cannot get through, then the parents of the children on those routes won’t have a way to get them to school.”

Proposition 403 provides up to $7 million annually. More than $400,000 of that amount is used to increase by 30 percent the county’s routine maintenance of key roads on the Navajo Nation to the 286 miles. The dirt roads receive regular grading. Fowler said the county puts up an additional $200,000 that is matched by the Navajo Department of Transportation to repair problem areas such as culverts, provide drainage relief and support materials such as gravel. 

Fowler said the projects are part of an intergovernmental agreement between the county, NDOT and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She said the county is working with NDOT and the BIA to identify and prioritize critical areas for repair. Fowler explained that the agreement was necessary because roads belong to the BIA and not the county. She said any future decision to pave the roads is up to the BIA. Prop 403 will run for 20 years.

Page USD Transportation Director Bill Patterson said the district is eager for the repairs to begin. “We’re all excited about the prospects of having those roads upgraded and continuously maintained,” Patterson said. “Buses that travel those roads have to be maintained, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re excited about the prospects.”

Fowler, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of maintaining the roads. She said that even during the summer blowing winds can make the roads impassable. The lower lands are flat and retain water while the higher elevations have a rocky terrain. “When the wind comes up, the roads get like washboards,” she said. “One bus driver told me that he has to tighten all the bolts on his bus after every trip.”

Drivers report picking students up early because they had to slow down to below 20 mph to traverse bumpy stretches of road.

In a video thanking the Navajo Nation residents for passing Prop, 403, bus driver Paul Jackson describes how expensive bus repairs made necessary by road conditions can be. “It costs $1,000 to replace rear tires,” Jackson said. “Other repairs are also very costly.”

Fowler said some students have to walk a mile through the desert to get to their bus stops, so it’s imperative the buses arrive. “This is not like they’re walking down the street to the next block,” she said. “We learned that people put value in the roads, especially getting students to school every day. Even though the roads will be rough, they are still passable. Parents and the school district are very grateful.” 

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