Tribe pulls support from Pott County road projects

By Randy Ellis
Shawnee, Oklahoma (AP) June, 2011

Upset at Pottawatomie County commissioners for endorsing a proposed Interstate 40 interchange in Shawnee, the Sac and Fox Nation Business Committee has declared a moratorium against providing financial support to transportation projects.

The proposed North Bryan Street interchange was initiated during former Gov. Brad Henry’s administration and was controversial from the beginning.

Henry and state Highway Commission Chairman Dan B. Overland both own property in the area and some opponents argued the interchange would be a political waste of $8 million to $10 million during a time when state programs were being slashed because of revenue shortfalls.

Henry and Overland both have said they didn’t initiate the project and didn’t think they would profit from it, even though they had land for sale in the area.

The Sac and Fox Nation initially passed a resolution more than a year ago opposing the proposed interchange on the grounds it could “potentially exterminate vital traditional cultural practices such as funerals, feasts, adoptions, clan ceremonies and annual dances as actively and traditionally practiced by the tribal community of the Sac and Fox Nation.”

Randle Carter, Sac and Fox treasurer, said at the time that tribal members have allotment lands in the area that for more than 100 years have been used for traditional ceremonial practices that normally aren’t talked about with the public.

The controversy heated up again May 10 when Pottawatomie County commissioners passed a resolution endorsing the project.

The Sac and Fox Nation Business Committee responded May 24 by unanimously passing a resolution of its own declaring a moratorium against funding transportation projects in the county. The moratorium could prove costly to the city and county.

The Sac and Fox Nation, like many Oklahoma tribes, has contributed millions of dollars to transportation projects when it believed those projects were in the best interest of the community.

Since 1987, the Sac and Fox Nation has provided more than $40 million in improvements to state, county and municipal roads and bridges, according to tribal officials.

“Through intergovernmental cooperative agreements with state, county and local officials, the Sac and Fox Nation has participated in more than 20 road improvement projects and over 40 bridge reconstruction projects in Pottawatomie, Lincoln and Payne Counties,” the resolution states.

Shawnee Mayor Linda Peterson described the Sac and Fox moratorium as “unfortunate.”

“They’ve been very good partners on road projects in the past,” she said, citing the widening of State Highway 18 as an example. Still, she said city commissioners have not wavered in their support for the project, which they believe will be good for economic development.

Pottawatomie County Commissioner Melissa Dennis, whose district includes the proposed interchange, said commissioners agreed to endorse the project at the request of Shawnee city officials because they also believe it will promote economic growth in the area.

“It’s actually a city project. It’s not a county project at all,” she said.

While a Sac and Fox transportation funding moratorium would be a financial blow, Dennis said the county will adjust.

“It will not stop any of my projects,” she said. “It will just take a little longer. ... All you can do is tighten your belt a little.”

Gary Evans, deputy director and chief engineer of the state Transportation Department, said no decision has been made yet on whether to build the North Bryan Street interchange. The department is in the process of gathering public comments and is awaiting the completion of an environmental study, he said.