SALAMANCA The Cattaraugus County Legislature added its voice to a growing chorus of critics of the Cuomo administration for blocking reconstruction of 11.5 miles of the Southern Tier Expressway here.
The latest letter to the governor comes after union leaders wrote letters to Gov. Andrew Cuomo urging him to settle disagreements with the Seneca Nation of Indians and start the $28.5 million reconstruction project.
"Bluntly, the lives of the residents of Cattaraugus County and those of the traveling public are being placed at risk by the actions taken, or not taken, by the New York State Department of Transportation," Legisl-ature Chairman Norman L. Marsh wrote to the governor June 21.
"Route I-86 is a primary artery for tourism and commerce," Marsh continued. "This route is the main access corridor into Allegany State Park, the largest park in the New York State park system. Tourism and travel into the county along Route I-86 is a large source of tax dollars for not only the county, but also for the state. We would not want to see any decreases in this revenue that might result by delaying repairs to this road."
The disagreement between state Thruway and transportation officials and the Nation focuses on adhering to Nation laws. Last month, Nation officials asked the federal government to re-allocate the $28.5 million for the Nation to reconstruct the expressway.
"While we are acutely aware of the ongoing disagreements between the State of New York and the Seneca Nation of Indians, the resulting situation created by this current iteration jeopardizes the public's welfare and holds many uninvolved members of the public hostage to this dispute," Marsh wrote. "In a real sense, New York's new motto 'Open for Business' should be amended to include the words, 'if you can get there safely in one piece.' Regardless of who may be perceived or argued to be at fault, the residents of Cattaraugus County respectfully demand that this situation be addressed and that the planned road work proceed as originally scheduled."
The multiple requests to the governor came after New York unilaterally changed a construction management practice that's functioned well since 1993. The state received bids on the expressway work May 18. Work has been planned for more than two years because the highway is unsafe for motorists.
"The Seneca Nation appreciates this recognition of our long-followed construction rules and the reinforcement by non-Senecas of our sovereign rights," Nation President Robert Odawi Porter said. "A congressman, union leaders representing more than 5,000 tradespeople and now an entire county legislature see the foolishness and arbitrary nature of the state's decision.
"We look forward to New York State acknowledging the Nation's laws and moving forward on this project, or stepping aside to let the Nation work on it directly via the federal government so safety is maintained and union tradespeople are allowed to work."
The county Legislature joins the union leaders and U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, in writing letters to Gov. Cuomo, urging quick state action on repairing the expressway.
An editorial by the Post-Journal took a similar perspective.
"Deliberately or simply out of ignorance, state bureaucrats and elected officials deal with the Senecas as if intransigent negotiating or flat out government bullying will win the day as it does sometimes in other arenas.
"What the state does not understand is that the Senecas' insistence on adhering to the old agreement is not about the money. It is about what the Senecas see as their inviolate right to sovereignty within their territories."
The Nation's decision to seek takeover of the project 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 warning, that this project would not adhere to the Nation's Tribal Employment Rights Office (TERO) rules, a rarity in 19 years.
Those rules, followed on nearly every New York State project that crossed Nation territory since 1993, require Nation monitors be present at construction sites to look out for Nation interests, including land use, environmental rules and project completion and quality. The state officials added that TERO rules would no longer be followed on any future projects.
President Porter, in a May 22 letter to the two Cuomo administration officials offering 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 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.
Significant projects included Nation monitoring, hiring of Nation workers and a 3 or 3.5 percent administrative fee built in to the project bid. In fact, 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 makes clear on two separate pages that the Nation owns the highway and state DOT is responsible for maintenance.
Further, under the original 1976 agreement between New York State and the Nation that permitted 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 to take over the project because the money the state proposed to use to fund the reconstruction 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.
The letters from top union officers came from the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters, Local 276, with 2,475 members; the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 17, with 1,974 members; the Laborers' International Union of North America, Local 621, 356 members; and the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers, Local 6, with 335 members.