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San Juan County, Navajo Nation push for funding to improve rural school bus routes

First Published      Last Updated Dec 17 2015 07:58 am

Within the 1.2 million acres of Navajo Nation land in Utah's San Juan County are 258 miles of roads used to bus children to school.

But one-third of those roads are dirt, according to county administrator Kelly Pehrson, making access to public education nearly impossible during inclement weather. "Once it rains or snows, they just become a muddy mess," Pehrson said.

County and tribal leaders hope to convert 87 miles of dirt road to gravel — but the $18 million upgrade was left out of a $305 billion transportation funding bill signed by President Barack Obama earlier this month.



In a statement released Tuesday, San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally said the push for bus-route funding will continue in 2016.

"Navajo students have the same constitutional right to get to school as all other students in Utah," she said. "These rights can't be a reality without the building and maintenance of safe roads."

Children living on the reservation miss between five and 10 days of school each year due to impassable roads, Pehrson said.

Since 2005, San Juan County has contributed about $11 million to maintain bus routes within the Navajo Nation.

The county previously received $500,000 each year from the federal government to maintain Navajo roads, Pehrson said. That funding disappeared in 2005, leaving $90,000 from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and county transportation funds.

He said recent changes to state law — last year's gas-tax increase and a quarter-cent sales-tax increase approved by county voters — will bring the county close to breaking even on maintaining the current condition of reservation roads.

But a major upgrade of the bus routes, he said, is out of reach.

"We need more funding to improve the roads on the reservation," Pehrson said.

The coalition of tribal leaders and elected officials lobbied Congress for $25 million in annual funding for five years. That revenue was to be split among three states — Utah, New Mexico and Arizona — where the Navajo Nation is located.

In August, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert sent a letter to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, urging consideration of bus-route conditions within tribal lands.

"We must ensure all students, including Native American children, have access to the best education possible so they can compete in the global marketplace and reach their full potential," Herbert wrote.

With the debate over the transportation bill concluded, Pehrson said the coalition is still forming their strategy for next year.

Those efforts have focused on federal legislation, but he said the county and tribal leaders are open to working with state policymakers.

"I would hope that someone, state or federal, would help us," he said.

bwood@sltrib.com

Twitter: @bjaminwood

 

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