Transportation Trends on Tribal Lands

Michigan is home to twelve tribal governments – and this week Trans4M set out to learn more about how these sovereign governments run their transit systems. In addition to learning about different funding streams, we found that tribes are in the midst of developing their existing non-motorized transportation infrastructure and are contemplating public transportation systems.


Flags of the twelve sovereign tribes in Michigan

Flags of the twelve sovereign tribes in Michigan (source)

We spoke with Steve Parsons, Planner at Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, Wendy Hoffman, Transportation Planner at the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and Robert Kalbfleisch, Land and Roads Management Director with the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians to gain insight to the transportation issues in their communities. How are their road projects funded, what is the primary modality of their communities, how developed are their non-motorized pathways?

We found that there are many similarities among tribes. One is their source of funding.  The process for submitting applications and receiving funding seems to be very similar to that of a county road commission, while funding sources themselves are very different. While tribes rarely work with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) for funding allocations, Hoffman notes that they do work with them as a strong resource, especially as MDOT has a designated Tribal Governments Liaison. Tribal governments work more closely with the federal government, with whom they have a government to government agreement with the Bureau of Indians Affairs (within the U.S. Department of Interior).

Parsons briefly explained the history of tribal funding. Since tribal funding was included into federal highway legislation in the 1980s, tribes have had a seat at the table for discussion on transportation funding. Until then, tribes were excluded from this discussion. Tribal governments receive yearly transportation funds which, according to Parsons, are ample amounts for their projects. “Fortunately for us, we have much greater control over projects that we want to fund – we just have to spell out what we plan to do.”

Symbol of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians (source)

Seal of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians (source)

Tribal planners put strong emphasis on spending these funds wisely and only creating transit systems if they find that there is a public need. The tribes we spoke with indicated that most residents use personal automobiles to get around. Before the tribes implement a public transportation system, they want data, public meetings and surveys to show that these systems are necessary.

Kalbfleisch also mentioned that his tribe would prioritize environmentally friendly public transit, such as those powered by alternative sources of fuel. He also nixed the idea of light rail or more advanced transportation for the time being because they want to see a bus system work successfully before implementing a more costly form of transit.

All three Tribes seem to be at the cusp of creating more developed transportation system. For example, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians recently hired a contractor who is in the early stages of gathering information on transit usage to identify gaps in their system, which spans seven counties in the UP. Hoffman is also spearheading an initiative to reinstate their long-dormant regional transportation committee. They also are looking toward more creative projects, such as lining sidewalks with large, glow in the dark rocks to promote safety and aesthetic appeal.

Symbol of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians (source)

Seal of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians (source)

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians is working on a revision of their 2011 Long Range Transportation Plan to make sure their information is up to date. Parsons is wary about implementing a bus system, “We really need to re-establish the needs of our community base. My only cautionary note is I’m not sure if we’re quite there, where a public transportation system would get enough use. I would need to do more surveys and meetings to get that information”.  It does seem like a need will eventually present itself on tribal lands as tribal lands tend to be in rural areas and tribal housing tends to be isolated between employment and schools.

In some cases, tribal planners work with local officials outside of tribal lands to develop plans and coordinate efforts. The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians work with the Bay Area Transit Authority(BATA), a Trans4M member, to provide transit for their community.

Kalbfleisch notes that BATA struggles to provide efficient service because housing and development on tribal lands are very spread out. The same tribe also benefits from TART Trails, another Trans4M member, as there is a trail that comes in close proximity to the tribal land. The trail comes near the tribe’s Grand Traverse Resort and Spa and they are hoping the trail will be extended to the Turtle Creek Casino and Hotel – as those are two major employment hubs for their residents. The tribe also has sidewalks that encompass almost half of their land. Kalbfleisch said, “Our sidewalks are really our economic trail system… there are a lot of members who use it who cannot or do not drive, but are still very employable.”

Symbol of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (source)

Seal of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (source)

The transportation climate on tribal lands in Michigan seems to be adapting to national trends in transportation and are becoming less car-centric. Young adults from the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians reservation have been noticeably leaving behind their cars for walking and biking and the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians are hoping to convert their trails from primarily recreational purposes to functional trails that connect tribal members to education, employment and health services. We hope to keep up our new relationship with Michigan’s sovereign tribal governments and work together to create a more transportation-friendly Michigan!

Written by: Kajal Ravani, Trans4M Fellow 


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