The integral relationship between access to transportation and quality of life is well known. Yet many citizens across the country struggle with access to health care, education, jobs, businesses, and entertainment. This struggle is especially true of many American Indian/Alaska Native communities.
Although American Indians and Alaska Natives living in “Indian Country” (on or near Indian reservations or designated Indian statistical areas) experienced marked improvement in real per capita income growth during the decade of the 1990s relative to the rest of the U.S. population (33% vs. 11%), this predominantly rural segment of the U.S. population lags substantially in economic resources behind mainstream America. While 79% of the U.S. population (2000 Census) is classified as urban, this statistic is reversed for American Indian/Alaska Native communities with about 75% of the population classified as rural. Even with the substantial improvements in Indian community economies since 1990 (e.g., poverty rate and unemployment improvements ten times higher than the U.S. as a whole), the average income for Indians is still at or below the poverty level and Indians are unemployed at triple the rate of the U.S. population.
Even with the improvement of their economy, Indian families often do not have the luxury of personal automobiles. In these cases, public transportation can be the only means of access for Indians to get to their jobs, school, health care, and other important places that help define “quality of life.” In fact, as their economies improve, public transportation becomes more vital as people now have jobs, money to buy groceries, and schools to attend. In the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), Congress established a supplemental funding program to assist tribes in establishing and maintaining transit systems. In order to provide sufficient levels of funding, training, and technical assistance to tribal transit agencies and to tribes establishing transit agencies, it is necessary to have clear, in-depth, and current information on the level of coverage and other statistics on tribal transit across the country. “Operation and development of tribal transit services” was identified in NCHRP Synthesis 366: Tribal Transportation Programs, A Synthesis of Highway Practice, as an area that needed further study.
Transportation projects increasingly impact—and are impacted by—tribes. With 562 federally recognized tribes, as well as many state-recognized and non-recognized tribes located in all regions across the country, there is a significant need for guidance, explanatory materials, example materials, and templates to be customized by the tribes that will support the development of tribal transit systems. These materials will be appropriate for immediate implementation by all parties working to develop transit and mobility projects of interest to and affecting tribes.
There are three critical tools needed to provide mobility for tribes and tribal members:
1. Descriptions of current tribal transit, illustrating the variety of services and service provision models;
2. Practical guidance for use by tribes in developing effective programs to meet the unique needs of their situations; and
3. Guidance on leveraging resources through alternative organizational models and alternative funding mechanisms.
Research is needed to develop each of these tools.
The objectives of this project are to develop (a) an information package that describes and illustrates the variety of tribal transit practices in the United States; (b) a Guidebook that provides practical materials and clear processes for tribes to develop plans for and access funds for tribal transit; and (c) strategies and materials for leveraging resources through alternative organizational models and alternative funding mechanisms in order to create and sustain effective mobility for the people. For the purpose of this study, tribal communities (or tribes) are defined to include both tribal governments and their members.