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Working with State DOTs

There are many ways that tribes and state DOTs can coordinate with each other:  through tribal liaisons, tribal summits/annual meetings, transportation resource guides, advisory committees, formal agreements, rural planning organizations, or a tribal transportation planning organization.  Regardless of how the relationship is structured, tribal representatives and state DOTs should work together throughout the transportation planning process.  Maintaining regular, open conversation between a tribe and its state DOT is one step that a tribe can take to ensure its needs are brought to the table during planning conversations.  This section discusses and provides examples of the different types of relationships that form between tribes and their state DOTs.  


Types of coordination

Transportation needs and issues are unaware of jurisdictional lines, and there are many issues that require states, local governments, and tribes to work together.  Transportation is one example of this as the same road can extend through tribal and state lands.  Understanding the methods the state uses to reach and coordinate with tribes will assist tribes in ensuring their concerns are heard and addressed.  A report prepared for the Wisconsin DOT (CTC and Associates 2004), found in NCHRP Synthesis 366 "Tribal Transportation Programs,"  identifies these four common methods within state DOTs for such coordination:


  • Tribal Liaisons, either as designated individuals or offices (Arizona, California, Minnesota, Montana, and Washington state were noted).
  • Tribal summits, held as communication or coordination meetings (Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Washington state and Wisconsin were noted).
  • Transportation resource guides, either printed or online, to help Indian tribes and agencies understand a tribe’s role in transportation issues (California, Minnesota, and Washington state were noted).
  • Advisory committees, which meet regularly to address tribal transportation issues (Arizona and California were noted).   

If your tribal transit system is interested in developing, or improving upon, a relationship with your state DOT, a good starting point would be to see if your state currently has any of these communication methods in place.  

To continue reading this report, please click here.

Case studies 

The following case studies present different ways that state DOTs and tribes have formed stronger relationships and brought everyone’s needs to the state transportation planning process.  If you find that your state does not offer any of the methods of coordination listed above, or those methods are not suited for your relationship with your state, you may be able to glean ideas from the best practices below to develop your own strategy for reaching out to and coordinating with your state DOT.


One of these examples was selected from a list compiled by the FHWA as a part of their Tribal Transportation Planning Resource Section, and if you would like to view their full list of resources, please click here

Case study: State of Washington

 In the state of Washington, the Tribal Transportation Planning Organization (TTPO) was formed in 2003 at a tribal/state transportation meeting, and it improves tribal government’s planning and programming activity through enhanced coordination with tribal, federal, state and local governments.  The organization acts to increase tribal transportation planning capacity and conducts research and data collection.  It works to bring tribes and the state together without the intention of promoting competition among individual tribes for project funding or other resources.  The Washington State DOT Transportation Planning Office provided the funds to start the organization.


When the TTPO was formed, the Washington DOT was starting an update of the Washington Transportation Plan, and TTPO members believed that the organization could actively participate in the update process by sharing tribal transportation needs and issues. 


The State of Washington has identified the following major successes as a result of forming the TTPO, which are stated in the Washington State Tribal Transportation Planning Organization document:

(1) Improved and ongoing coordination and cooperation


(2) Complete Indian Roads Inventory


(3) Tribal participation in the update of Washington’s Statewide Transportation Plan (WTP)


(4) Tribal transportation needs were identified and tracked through a database

To continue reading about Washington’s TTPO, please click here

Case study: State of South Dakota

In South Dakota, tribes meet with the South Dakota Department of Transportation annually to bring together representatives from the tribes, the state, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).  The purpose of the annual meetings is to exchange information about needs and upcoming planned projects.  Senior staff members from SDDOT participate in each meeting, and this shows that the state is committed to incorporating tribes into the planning process.  As follow-up to these annual meetings, staff from FHWA South Dakota Division Office and SDDOT hold meetings, often on tribal lands, with tribes as needed to discuss needs and project ideas.


Transportation in South Dakota has improved for everyone since tribes and government agencies have established relationships through the annual State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) planning meeting.  Over the past 10 years at least 12 projects have been successfully completed by sharing materials and equipment and simultaneously timing projects to save on mobilization costs, and the state and tribes have seen savings of up to $500,000 per project.    

To continue reading about this relationship please click here.      


State government tribal Department of Transportation contacts

To find your state’s contact information, please click here.

Tribal sovereignty 

Tribes’ sovereignty is grounded in the United States Constitution and they are at the same level as the federal government.  While tribes do not fall under the authority of states, tribes can have “government-to-government” relationships with states for the purpose of providing effective and efficient transportation for their people.  As a tribe, you have the option to be a direct recipient of federal funds or to receive federal funds as a subrecipient of your state.  In order to fully take advantage of available federal funds, tribes should be aware of any grant programs in which the funding goes directly to states.  In those situations, it would be beneficial for you to be a subrecipient of the state in order to access those funding sources.  Open and consistent communication with your state DOT will help to ensure you will be notified when these grant opportunities arise. 


As a 5311 subrecipient of the state, you would be responsible for complying with the same grant management requirements as all other non-tribal subrecipients.  These requirements are different from those you are expected to comply with as a direct recipient from the federal government under the Tribal Transit Program.  For more information about 5311 grant management requirements, please see that section of the toolkit.  For more information about the requirements under the Tribal Transit Program, please see that section of the toolkit.  

To read more about tribal sovereignty, please see the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ FAQ section "The Nature of Federal-Tribal and State-Tribal Relations" here.

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