Repairs are finally coming to the deteriorated, pothole-ridden stretch of the New York state thruway that runs through the Seneca Nation of Indians’ Cattaraugus Territory.
The New York State Thruway Authority and the Seneca Nation, long at odds over how to repair the three-mile portion of Interstate 90, announced Wednesday they’d reached an agreement and work will begin immediately.
Seneca Nation President Rickey Armstrong Sr. said the two sides recently started a positive, direct dialogue, as the details were finalized late last week and earlier this week.
“My administration and this council worked hard to make this agreement happen,” Armstrong told reporters at the Seneca Allegany Administration Building in Salamanca. “We’re happy with this important step and our focus is to make sure the repairs get done.”
The state Thruway Authority said crews will begin work Thursday, including partial-depth repairs to the most severely damaged sections of the roadway.
After the most urgent repairs are made, a full reconstruction project will begin to improve the riding surface and safety of the roadway. This will include repairs to the underlying concrete pavement and complete asphalt replacement, as well as guide rail replacement and new line striping.
The project is expected to be completed within eight to 10 weeks. If not finished before winter, work will resume in the spring.
When asked, a state Thruway Authority spokesperson said it was “too early to say” how much the project will cost and crews will have a better idea once they begin work.
“As promised, we have crews at the ready who will begin work (Thursday) to focus on stabilizing and sustaining the roadway for all motorists as we head into the winter months,” said state Thruway Authority Executive Director Matthew Driscoll in a statement.
The debate over the roadway goes as far back as 2014, with both sides accusing the other of bad faith.
The state Thruway Authority has maintained it was ready to make repairs, but that the Nation refused to grant them permission, while U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, whose congressional district overlaps the Nation’s territory, has accused Gov. Andrew Cuomo of not making repairs because of a separate dispute with the Nation over $250 million in casino revenue.
The Nation even filed a federal lawsuit against the state last year, alleging the state did not comply with federal regulations when building the thruway on its land in the 1950s. The suit is still ongoing.
On Wednesday, Armstrong, while saying delays were due to “clarifications of work scopes,” declined to discuss exactly why the two sides were at odds.
“There’s no benefit rehashing past history for either the state or the Nation,” he said. “I think it’s more important to focus and move forward on positive communication.”
It’s also unclear why the two sides finally came together. Nation officials say they reached out to the state Thruway Authority Sept. 12 to reopen dialogue and the state submitted a project agreement Sept. 17.
After the Nation made a few edits, the state sent back a formal agreement Tuesday. Armstrong signed it Wednesday morning.
“When they finally knocked, we answered it,” Armstrong said.
The agreement was well received by local politicians. Reed, R-Corning, who had called on the FBI to investigate Cuomo over his handling of the repair situation, praised both Cuomo and the Nation.
“Fixing the road is the right thing to do for the safety of the travelling public,” Reed said in a statement. “We were happy to lead the public outcry over the road conditions for the hardworking people we care about and represent.”
State Sen. Chris Jacobs, chair of the state Senate’s Transportation Committee, called the agreement a “victory” for the thousands of motorists who use the roadway.
“I applaud both sides for working together to reach a resolution that will ensure this road is properly maintained,” Jacobs, R-Buffalo, said in a statement. “These improvements will enhance public safety and have an immediate impact on residents throughout Western New York.”
Armstrong said he’s hopeful the agreement could lead to other deteriorated state roadways around Salamanca being repaired.
Could the agreement lead to a better relationship between the Nation and the state?
“As long as the state engages us in positive, respectful dialogue, I think we can solve a lot of important issues,” Armstrong said.