Navajo Nation signs road maintenance agreement with San Juan County to improve rural bus routes

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) San Juan County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes (left) looks on as Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy sign an agreement to allow San Juan County to maintain tribal roads on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020.

Teec Nos Pos, Ariz. • Long school bus rides for Diné (Navajo) students in San Juan County may get a little smoother in the coming months thanks to an agreement signed Monday between county and tribal officials that partially resolved a rights of way dispute.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez traveled to the Teec Nos Pos Chapter House just south of the Utah state line for a signing ceremony with the Navajo Department of Transportation (NDOT) and San Juan County officials that will provide funds to the county road department and give it permission to maintain 75 miles of reservation roads.

“We have agreements like this with Arizona counties, New Mexico counties and we once had this agreement with San Juan County in Utah," Nez said, referring to the county’s previous work on Navajo Nation roads, which stopped in April 2018 when NDOT told county officials it was going to “transition the county route ownership to tribal route ownership” in a federal inventory.

NDOT assumed maintenance responsibilities in the intervening years, but lack of personnel and funds led to deteriorating conditions on the hundreds of miles of remote dirt and paved roads across the southeast corner of Utah.

“The line of the day at every [Navajo Nation] chapter meeting is: ‘When is our road going to get fixed?’” said San Juan County Commission Chairman Kenneth Maryboy, who was elected to the county leadership in 2018. Maryboy and his fellow commissioners Willie Grayeyes and Bruce Adams made the road agreement a priority last year, but it was slow to materialize.

“We certainly appreciate what just transpired," Maryboy said after the signing ceremony. “It’s been a long wait."

While Monday’s agreement is a good step forward, San Juan County Administrator Mack McDonald said he’s thinking of the document as a work in progress. “It won’t be perfect, but it will help."

The agreement provides for $100,000 in funds from the tribe that will be matched by the county. It prioritizes school bus routes and covers only a portion of the roads on the reservation. McDonald said he hopes more routes can be added at a future date, noting that delays in maintenance can lead to higher costs in the long run.

Adams, a former schoolteacher and the only non-Native American on the county commission, noted that the longest school bus ride in the San Juan School District is nearly two hours one way, a burden that’s made worse by poor road conditions.

“It breaks my heart ... to know that students have to ride that far," Adams told the meeting audience. “I applaud you as parents, as people who live in very remote areas. I’ve been going to the Legislature every week to fight for dollars for rural Utah ... but Navajo people are the ones who really live in the most rural part of Utah."

The meeting also featured a presentation by an engineering firm on the feasibility of building a road from the community of Navajo Mountain south of Lake Powell that would connect with two highways in Utah, something that Grayeyes, who is from Navajo Mountain, has been pushing for as a county commissioner and a member of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition.

Driving from Navajo Mountain to the county seat of Monticello currently requires making a 3.5-hour, 205-mile trip through Arizona, and the proposed road could cut travel time in half, which proponents argue would allow better access to services and open the Navajo Mountain area to increased economic development.

Brian Barton of Jones & DeMille Engineering said the three-phase project would cost an estimated $113.7 million to bring a paved road from Navajo Mountain to the Oljato-Monument Valley area and a second road north to Highway 276 near Bears Ears National Monument. The latter connection road would require an expensive bridge across the San Juan River near Clay Hills Crossing, Barton said.

Nez praised the roads projects as well as an ongoing effort to bring water and electricity to Westwater, a small community on Navajo Nation land near Blanding. The Navajo Nation is considering contributing funds to build the infrastructure if a $500,000 request for Westwater is approved by the Utah Legislature this session.

“It looks like this project is going to be a great model for Indian Country," he said.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.