Tonto National Forest officials have canceled planned improvements at Second Crossing.
The decision avoids a six-week closure of Houston Mesa Road and gives residents who live east of Second Crossing a hard-fought victory. They opposed the joint venture between the Tonto National Forest and Gila County to replace the existing low-water crossing on the grounds that the alternate route -- Control Road (FR64) -- is dangerous and that emergency services would be delayed.
Although Tonto National Forest Supervisor Karl Siderits was supposed to make the final decision, a press release from the U.S. Forest Service dated Nov. 22 quoted Ed Armenta, head ranger for the Payson Ranger District, saying he "recommended" the project be terminated.
"We are not going to take a chance on detouring people when there might be snow on the ground," he said. "I considered all these factors and recommended that we cancel the project."
Lionel "Marty" Martinez, who argued the county's case in favor of the project, was incredulous when informed of the decision. When told that the press release said the project was "canceled" and "terminated," he deadpanned, "That sure does sound final. So now it's dead."
Martinez lashed out at Siderits and Pat Johnson, president of the Whispering Pines Neighborhood Association and unofficial spokesperson for the affected residents, and pointed out that the decision could backfire.
"I blame Karl Siderits (and) I blame Pat Johnson for not having a good view of the big picture," he said. "Karl Siderits didn't have the intestinal fortitude to proceed with the contract, so what's going to happen if this low-water crossing washes out --e're going to be inconvenienced for a very long time. We'll have to travel the Control Road anyway."
In the press release, Armenta admitted the opposition of residents of Whispering Pines, Bonita Creek, Rim Trail, Cowan Ranch, Verde Glen and Cold Springs Ranch was a major factor in the decision.
"When we first began planning this project, we only anticipated a one- or two-week detour via the Control Road," Armenta said. "Once it became clear late in the process that several weeks would be required to complete the project, and how concerned local citizens were about having to detour for that length of time, we knew we had to take a second look."
The residents, who claimed they were blindsided by short notice of the project, rallied support for their cause with signs along Houston Mesa Road. They also made phone calls to almost anyone who could help, including U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi and U.S. Sen. John McCain.
Renzi, in the middle of a political campaign, held a meeting with residents at Second Crossing Oct. 11, then began working behind the scenes to get the decision changed. The Payson Ranger District planned to close Houston Mesa Road at the crossing beginning Oct. 18, but a last-minute reprieve Oct. 15 delayed the start of construction.
While the specific project -- replacing a deteriorating concrete apron with a "vented ford" crossing will not happen -- Armenta said the condition of the crossing and Houston Mesa Road leading to it, must ultimately be addressed, and he called on the residents who opposed him to help find a solution.
"We can't just leave things as they are; improvements should be made," he said. "We heard loud and clear from area residents that this approach wasn't going to work. Now it's time for folks to come in and work with both the Tonto National Forest and Gila County to find a solution."
An environmental assessment initiated in the late 1990s, concluded that a two-lane bridge should be built at Second Crossing, and other improvements were recommended for the entire stretch of road in question. The vented ford was intended as a stopgap measure.
Johnson said she appreciated Armenta's decision, but said flooding at Third Crossing from the rains earlier this week indicates it needs to be addressed before Second Crossing.
"The problem is at Third Crossing," she said. "Right after the Dude Fire, they seeded all that area with grass seed. Over the years, that grass seed washed down the river, and there's grass growing in there that clogs the flow of the water."
Martinez said the county will "sit down with anybody," but said he doubts the funding will be available to make the needed improvements.
"There are other bridges that need to be built," he said. "How soon they'll come up with money to do something on Houston Mesa Road I don't know. It's unfortunate, but that's the way it is."