SALAMANCA - The Seneca Nation has asked the Federal Highway Administration to re-allocate $28.5 million for the nation to reconstruct 11.5 miles of I-86 after the nation says New York state unilaterally changed a construction management practice.
Nation officials announced the sudden and unexpected decision to end a 19-year nation-state cooperation policy for projects on Seneca territory at a news conference Tuesday.
The state received construction bids on May 18 and the contract is expected to be awarded for the project in mid-June. It has been in the planning stages for more than two years due to the highway's unsafe nature.
"After approximately a two-year period of time, we've come to a point where the state of New York has indicated its unwillingness to comply with our (Seneca) nation's laws governing the project as planned. We have sought for this period of time to enter into what is called a project-specific agreement, for the purpose of allowing the state and its agents to come into our territory to reconstruct half of the Southern Tier Expressway," said Robert Odawi Porter, president of the Seneca Nation. "Unfortunately, in a communication issued about 10 days ago, the Department of Transportation commissioner and the executive director of the Thruway Authority have indicated that they will not be complying with the nation's law governing the ordinance and not paying the 3.5 percent fee on the contracts associated with that. Because of starkness of that we've put forward two communications."
The 3.5 percent Tribal Employment Rights Ordinance fee that is applicable to contracts let on or near the nation's territories would result in almost $1 million in revenue for the Seneca Nation.
In response to the nation's position, the state DOT sent a letter to Porter late Thursday which says, "the new demand for paying the nation a fee for routine roadway maintenance is a significant change in policy by the nation. This is an unprecedented demand."
The Seneca Nation has requested that the Federal Highway Administration consider contracting directly with the tribal government for approximately $28.5 million so that the road repairs can be finished in an acceptable period of time. According to Porter, there is precedent for the Federal Highway Administration to contract directly with tribal governments, although it hasn't happened in New York state.
"We're very comfortable in our capacity to engage in this kind of activity," said Porter. "We know that we can do this work and rather than causing a continuing risk to public safety or any further delays in moving forward, we believe that the United States government and the Federal Highway Administration should contract directly with the Seneca Nation so we can complete this work on time."
The question was raised at the press conference as to whether or not this could be a tactic employed by the state in order to cause the Seneca Nation to concede on issues including casinos and taxes.
"I'm very concerned that this is part of a broader strategy that ties to other issues that affect our nation," said Porter. "In addition, the unprecedented communication from two separate agencies communicating the same policy directive could only have been directed from the administration of the government, so it is of concern to us that this is part of some kind of retaliation designed to induce concessions by our nation on other issues."
Porter was also quick to point out that if New York state continues with the repair project without resolving these issues, the Seneca Nation would give them notice that agents and workers are trespassing, cite them for trespassing, and if they refuse to leave, then Seneca law enforcement will remove them from the territory.
"It's no different than what any other government or landlord would do when it relates to trespassing on our lands," he said.
"I think it's the government's job to solve problems," said Porter. "All I can say is that when you do business in our territory you have to follow our laws. The fees that are generated are used to support very important training and employment programs for our people. That's how we sustain our economy here."