IRVING - Millions of dollars are being threatened to be reallocated and taken away from Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, leaving bridges potentially in disrepair.
The Seneca Nation of Indians and New York state are once again not in agreement. Both parties held separate press conferences Thursday to share their side of the story regarding construction on Nation territory. Seneca Nation of Indians President Robert Odawi Porter opened the Seneca press conference by addressing a "very serious matter."
The bridge that connects Chautauqua to Erie County in Irving could be red flagged at any time along with three other bridges on Nation territory including two bridges on the Thruway and one on Route 438. If these bridges are closed or lessened to one lane, public safety could be an issue. Transportation Manager for the Seneca Nation said all bridges no longer have a valid inspection. The inspections inspired in April and June with the Thruway bridge over Cattaraugus Creek expiring in July.
OBSERVER Photo by Samantha McDonnell
Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter (at podium) held a press conference to address the conflict currently ongoing between the state and the Seneca Nation regarding repair work on bridges on Nation territory.
"It's not just a matter of public safety that affects the Seneca Nation but a matter of public safety that affects everyone that lives, works and engages in commerce here in this part of Western New York," Porter said.
State Department of Transportation (DOT) inspectors have been working on the Routes 5 and 20 bridge, recently inspecting the bridge.
The Seneca Nation should have the results in a few weeks and it will be determined based on those findings, if the bridge should be shut down.
"The state is now jeopardizing public safety," Porter said. "The bridge at 5 and 20 ... involves not just a highway but involves access to a hospital, access to major retail and business establishments and affects quality of lives as we get ready for the school year to begin..."
The New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) also held a press conference earlier Thursday afternoon. DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald announced there was $47 million in funds available to be used for bridge and road work throughout the Seneca Nation. McDonald, however, threatened to reallocate this money if the Seneca Nation blocks the work. One of those projects set to begin immediately is the 11.5-miles-reconstruction of I-86.
"We are here today to show that this is a priority project for the State of New York and for the Department of Transportation. DOT is prepared to immediately advance the I-86 project, which will rehabilitate and improve safety on this important highway while creating more than 450 jobs in the process ...." McDonald said in a statement.
Porter put a rumor to rest that was recently leaked before the press conference of the state wanting gaming money to be used for regulation fees.
"The state wants us to use dollars held in dispute over the gaming exclusivity to somehow use that to pay the state's share of this TERO fee. Only a fool would consider such a proposal if it were to be true," he said.
The Tribal Employment Rights Ordinance (TERO) is regulation which requires 3.5 percent paid of the total construction costs over $50,000 to the nation by any employer working on Native American territory. Also work must be comprised of more than half native American workers and preference must be given to Native American workers.
According to Porter, this legislation has been in effect for more than two decades and the state has obliged. However, recently, the Seneca Nation of Indians increased the TERO by half a percent. But the state is now refusing to pay any TERO.
"This is retaliation. The state of New York is retaliating against the Seneca Nation, all of the people affected by the Seneca Nation and the non-natives who live in our area because of its belligerence and its willingness to cheat us on gaming issues," Porter said.
Porter said that members of the council invited McDonald to the Seneca press conference but she refused.
"Today we call upon the government to stop this foolishness, stop this belligerence (and) stop this disrespect of our nation, our sovereignty and our neighbors here in Western New York and get back to work. Follow our laws, reimburse the contractors through our TERO fees and allow this project to move forward," he said.
If the bridge for Routes 5 and 20 and other bridges were to close, bus routes for Silver Creek and Lake Shore school districts would be affected as well as routes for fire, police and ambulance traveling to and from Lake Shore Hospital. Capt. Richard Buchhardt of the Cattaraugus County Sheriff's Office spoke of how the closing of bridges would affect traffic and daily commutes.
"One of the issues that is going to happen if these bridges get red flagged, the detour route that we have in place in case that this happens could put 25 to 30 mile additional travel to get around these bridges," Buchhardt said. "If we have a 25-mile detour that we have to go in order to help some individual, that's just absolutely crazy."
If the bridges along the Thruway were to be closed, the detours to get from Buffalo to any place west would be taken along Route 219 through Springville. Chautauqua County Executive Greg Edwards remembers when a flood three years ago threatened to shut down the Thruway, detours were projected to go through Wesleyville, Pa and rerouted from Buffalo to the 219 to reach I-86.
"That's precisely what could happen today," Edwards said. "Any of you who have seen the Routes 5 and 20 bridge in the last five years will know the unusual method that New York state used ... putting an I-beam on top of the deck and running cables and bolts below the deck and closing approximately one third of the bridge to continue to use the bridge for traffic."
Edwards showed his support for the Nation of Indians by saying the nation is "being held hostage" by the state for its inability to finish projects. Congressman Tom Reed also sent a representative to show his support. Brant Town Supervisor Leonard Pero also spoke in favor on behalf of the Nation as a neighboring community.
"These three bridges in question are also in the town of Brant .... and I find it very disturbing that the state of New York is not helping the people of the Seneca Nation and the town of Brant and our region. To look at it as politics, it is a terrible tragedy that something could happen and that we would be questioning why this happened when it could be taken care of now," Pero said.
The DOT is slated to start construction on the Routes 5 and 20 bridge in spring 2013. Bids are to be opened this winter. A part of the project has already been completed on the bridge. The bank stabilization along Cattaraugus Creek has been completed.
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