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Cherokee Nation gives to road project

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TULSA, Okla. (AP) - The Cherokee Nation plans to donate more than $6 million toward a widening project for Interstate 44 in Catoosa.

Work on the project near the Cherokee Nation Casino and Resort was set to begin in 2011. But with the tribe's contribution and a tribal right of way valued at more than $1 million, the project's start probably will be pushed up to the summer of 2009, said Gary Ridley, Oklahoma Department of Transportation director.

The project will widen I-44 from four lanes to eight at an intersection near the casino, widen other roads in the area and add auxiliary lanes. It also will replace a functionally obsolete bridge on westbound I-44 and a structurally deficient bridge on the eastbound side.

Total cost will be between $48 million and $50 million, Ridley said.

''This project, I can assure you, would have been put way on the back burner because we could never gather enough money to do the project to get it done,'' Ridley said at a news conference July 8 with tribal and Catoosa city officials.

''Now with the help of the Cherokee Nation, we're going to be able to accelerate this project. Traffic in the area is near gridlock during rush hours,'' he said. ''Certainly with the boom taking place on the northeast side of Tulsa, it's imperative we do something and do it quickly, and the only way we were able to do that is with the help of the Cherokee Nation.''

The project will likely be opened for bidding in March 2009. If bids are approved in April, construction would begin that summer and finished in 2011, Ridley said.

The project likely will begin as a $125 million casino construction project finished in 2009. That casino project will add 337,000 square feet, a 20-story hotel and an estimated 450 new employees.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith said the interchange project not only will help patrons go to the casino and help the complex grow, but also help other businesses and the city of Catoosa.

''The old adage is a very true one: a rising tide raises all ships,'' Smith said. ''The value of the project today is to help Catoosa grow, help our gaming operations here mature, become more profitable and employ more people and serve the ultimate mission of the Cherokee Nation to become a healthier and happier people.''

Smith said the tribe has been working for years with the Transportation Department. In 2003, the tribe lobbied Congress for transportation funds, and the tribe contributed $4 million in 2006 to help repair or replace bridges in the state, Smith said.

Since 2006, the tribe also has contributed $11.7 million to expedite the I-44 interchange widening project. The project is needed, as evidenced by rush-hour traffic there, said Dave Stewart, CEO of Cherokee Nation Enterprises, the tribe's business arm.

''The efforts will eventually transform this interchange into something that will facilitate the transportation of emergency vehicles, public schools and provide access to Catoosa that is greatly needed,'' Stewart said.

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