Federal Highway Administration engineers inspected four deteriorating bridges on Seneca Nation land over the New York State Thruway and Cattaraugus Creek recently and will do the same on an unsafe stretch of the Southern Tier Expressway slated for rebuilding this summer.
The previously planned inspections came at a time of disagreement between state Thruway and transportation officials and the Nation over inspecting the bridges on the Nation's Cattaraugus Territory near Silver Creek and adhering to Nation laws on the Interstate 86 reconstruction on its Allegany Territory near Salamanca.
"We are pleased at the responsiveness of federal inspectors, who obviously share our concerns about the safety of these bridges and highways," Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter said. "We are all interested in the safety of our roadways for the traveling public and especially our people who use those crossings daily."
The Nation in March authorized the Thruway Authority to conduct bridge inspections and begin preliminary plans, but the agency never acted and the authorizations expired, with one bridge inspection overdue on the Thruway.
Inspectors from the FHA onsite recently include an area engineer, a materials and asset management engineer and a senior bridge engineer, all from the agency's New York Division. They inspected three Thruway bridges and one New York DOT bridge carrying state routes 5/20 over Cattaraugus Creek.
The inspections came about 10 days after Nation officials asked the federal government to re-allocate $28.5 million for the Nation to reconstruct 11.5 miles of the Southern Tier Expressway outside Salamanca after New York state unilaterally changed a construction management practice that has functioned well since 1993.
The state received bids on May 18 and the contract is expected to be awarded for the project in mid-June.
The section of road, running west from Salamanca past the town of Red House, is in deplorable condition and could be dangerous for motorists. To avoid further delays in reconstruction, the Nation moved to replace the state Department of Transportation on the project and obtain and reallocate the federal funds from the state to complete the job.
The Nation's decision came after an extraordinary joint phone call May 14 from Thruway Authority Executive Director Thomas Madison and NYS DOT Commissioner Joan MacDonald. They told President Porter and other top Nation officials, without any warning, that this project would not adhere to the Nation's Tribal Employment Rights Office (TERO) rules, a rarity in 19 years.
Those rules, adopted in 1993 and followed on nearly every state project crossing the Nation, require Nation monitors be present at construction sites to look out for Nation interests. The state officials added TERO rules would no longer be followed on any future projects.
President Porter, in a May 22 letter to the two Cuomo administration officials offered to continue talks to resolve the issue, said no attempts by the state to begin reconstruction of Southern Tier Expressway on its territory will be permitted if they ignore TERO rules.
Jody Clark, the Nation's transportation manager, said New York state and the Nation completed an estimated 10 to 15 construction projects or regulated activities per year on roads, bridges and highways since TERO's creation, with more than 40 in just the last three years.
The TERO fee was part of this project's bid specifications when they went out in April. And the state's report supporting the bid documents made it clear on two separate pages the Nation owns the highway and NYS DOT is responsible for maintenance.
Only when Madison and MacDonald called on May 14 was the rule abruptly jettisoned.
"This is an insulting and unprofessional slap in the face of almost 20 years of Nation-state cooperation on highway, road and bridge construction and reconstruction projects and it's totally unacceptable," President Porter said at a news conference May 24. "This state decision endangers the traveling public and probably kills the project for the 2012 construction season.
"Everyone knows we have some disagreements with state officials in other sectors, but we will not stand by, lose another construction season, and watch union workers and contractors sit by idly while the state plays political games and endangers the safety of motorists, our people and our patrons who come to Seneca Allegany Casino, including those from Ohio and Pennsylvania."
In fact, the highway portion of the Southern Tier Expressway to be rebuilt a total of about 46 lane miles of highway, ramps and medians includes two exits for the very popular Allegany State Park.
Further, under the original 1976 agreement between New York state and the Nation that permitted the Southern Tier Expressway to cross Seneca territory, the state is obligated to maintain territory roads. For 35 years, the state has not met the terms of the Southern Tier Expressway agreement, Nation officials said.
President Porter and Clark initiated contact with the Federal Highway Administration because funds the state proposed to use for the reconstruction project comes from federal highway budgets. Under Seneca treaties with the federal government, the Nation can seek United States' intervention on an issue such as this.
President Porter proposed in a letter to Jonathan D. McDade, division administrator, Federal Highway Administration, New York Division in Albany SCMC LLC do the work. SCMC is a Seneca business that just won a contract for $18.5 million to design and build a U.S. Army Reserve Center in Schenectady. SCMC is also working under Army construction contracts in Mobile, Ala. and Savannah, Ga.
Officials said more than a year of discussions with the state has not produced a consensus on the agreement involving TERO and the project. Most of the highway to be reconstructed is on Seneca land and is typically rolling and bumpy with a seriously deteriorated road bed.