Roads on Tribal Lands

Roads connect people to education, employment, health care, and other essential services. Roads are especially important on tribal lands because of the remote location of some tribes. But these roads are often unpaved and may not be well maintained, such as this muddy dirt road that is part of a school bus route.

Photograph of a Muddy Dirt Road That is Part of a School Bus Route

Today’s WatchBlog explores our report on road conditions on tribal lands and how this relates to students getting to school. Check out our video for a glimpse of what it’s like to ride a school bus on tribal lands, then read on for more.

Most BIA- and Tribe-Owned Roads Unpaved

School bus routes on tribal lands include paved and unpaved roads, and segments of those routes can be owned by many different entities, such as the state, county, tribe, and Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to BIA, the majority of roads owned by tribes or BIA are dirt.         

Even if we know the surface material, it is unclear how good or poor the roads are. We found that data on the condition of roads were incomplete, inconsistent, or outdated. We made several recommendations to improve data on roads.

Taking care of these roads can be challenging due to funding constraints, overlapping jurisdictions, and adverse weather—such as drought, heavy rain, high winds, and snow. The image below of school districts in Arizona on Navajo Nation shows the jurisdictions of who owns and who maintains roads for the schools, as well as where roads wash out in adverse weather. (To use the interactive features of the figure, download the pdf report of GAO-17-423 and go to p.25.)

GIF Showing GAO Analysis of Navajo Nation Division of Transportation and Coconino County, Arizona Data and MapInfo

A Barrier to School Attendance

Indian students in elementary and secondary school are absent more than non-Indian students, according to the Department of Education, and road conditions can be a barrier to attendance. When the school bus or the student cannot get to the bus stop due to road conditions, the student may miss part or all of the school day.

Infographic Showing School Bus on the Navajo Nation (Utah) and the National Rate of Students Chronically Absent, School Year 2013-14

Road conditions on tribal lands can also present various safety risks to students and transportation staff. Some roads may have few or no sidewalks, shoulders, or guardrails, among other features.

Figure Showing School Bus Route Traversing a Wooden Bridge on the Pine Ridge Reservation

Poor road conditions also contribute to the wear and tear on vehicles, increasing costs for vehicle maintenance and transportation.

Figure Showing Windshield and Side Mirror Bracket Repairs on a School Bus Serving Routes on Gravel Roads on the Rosebud Reservation

We found the Bureau of Indian Education’s schools generally do not collect data on transportation-related causes for absences, despite broader federal guidance that recommends doing so. BIE’s attendance system lists causes, but transportation-related causes are currently not among them. Thus, BIE lacks insight into the effect of road conditions and cannot target appropriate interventions. We recommended BIE provide guidance to schools to collect data on student absences related to these conditions.

Check out our report to learn more about tribal roads.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Rebecca Shea at SheaR@gao.gov.
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