Wampanoag Tribe offers road funds to towns
The Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah has access to federal highway money that it would share with all the Island towns, but some town officials are skeptical about signing on to so-called "free money."
All six boards of selectmen received letters recently from county engineer Stephen Berlucchi explaining the Bureau of Indian Affairs program. Mr. Berlucchi asked the selectmen's permission for their towns to be added to the "Indian roads inventory."
The funds are administered through the Federal Highway Administration. Under a matching grant formula, the money can be used to pay for a portion of road repairs and new road construction, both on tribal lands and in areas associated with tribal lands, Mr. Berlucchi said.
The letters listed the roads in each town that the tribe has designated under the program guidelines. They are mostly main arteries or road sections that tribal members use in their daily travels. The numbers of road sections range from two in Tisbury to 10 each in Edgartown and Aquinnah.
Although the BIA funding source is not new, new regulations requiring the towns' permission to be on the inventory prompted the letters, tribal planner Durwood Vanderhoop said by phone on Monday. The tribe has kept a road inventory on file with the BIA since about 1999, he said, but added, "It hasn't been much on the radar."
Now the tribe is seeking additional inventory that could bring more money to the Vineyard and other Massachusetts towns where Wampanoag Tribe members live, he said. The Wampanoag is the only recognized Indian tribe in the state.
"We're looking at ways the tribe can assist the Island and others towns on some projects," Mr. Vanderhoop said. "This is a way to be a contributor in the Island community."
Mr. Vanderhoop said the Island joint transportation committee has been discussing some possible uses for the funds and for other money for special projects. The planned new drawbridge in Vineyard Haven is one possibility for the special funds, especially since it connects to the hospital, he said.
Mr. Berlucchi said Monday that a request has been sent to the state Highway Department to accept a section of Beach Road around the drawbridge for designation.
Tisbury and Oak Bluffs selectmen have already given permission for their designated roads to be on the overall inventory. He said he has been explaining the program to other town officials.
Mr. Berlucchi appeared by chance at the West Tisbury selectmen's meeting last Wednesday while they were discussing his letter and was asked to answer some questions by the skeptical selectmen. He put a positive slant on the program.
Mr. Berlucchi said the funding applies to roadways that tribal members use to get to services such as the hospital, jobs, the post office, and even their homes. At a recent meeting with Wampanoag tribal members and three BIA officials, he learned that the money can be used for maintaining and resurfacing existing roads, or building new roads. "There is tons of money available because they're not spending it," Mr. Berlucchi said. "It could be a very lucrative program for the Island."
Selectman Glenn Hearn thought the program was worth pursuing, but selectmen Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter and John Early were more cautious. They said they would take the matter "under advisement" and instructed town administrator Jennifer Rand to look into it and report in two weeks. Mr. Berlucchi said he met Monday with Ms. Rand.