After years of frustrating efforts trying to get federal, state or county officials to build a safe, reliable way to cross Tonto Creek during floods, one Tonto Basin resident proposes instead of waiting any longer, to just go over the creek.
Roy Goodwin presented fellow Tonto Basin residents with a proposal to build a "Sky Walk" across Tonto Creek at a cost of about $2 million as opposed to an estimated $20 to build a bridge.
Goodwin said that nearly a decade of begging for an all-weather crossing at Tonto Creek has produced little more than roadblocks, so he advocates the Sky Walk as a realistic interim solution.
"This could be used in emergencies to shuttle people, food, medicines, pretty much all the things people need when they get stranded on the east side of the creek during floods," said Goodwin.
The Sky Walk is essentially a two-gondola, cable-operated, tramway powered by an 800 horsepower electric motor, which Goodwin said could be run by solar panels or APS.
The primary question on resident's minds at the 9 a.m. Monday, March 10, meeting in Punkin Center was who would pay for the Sky Walk's construction, operation and maintenance.
Goodwin speculated that the tramway could double as a tourist attraction to generate revenue.
He said residents from the Valley might go to Tonto Basin to ride Arizona's only tramway.
Another possibility offered at Monday's meeting was a $3 to $5 dollar surcharge on resident's electric bills, which could potentially generate about $1,700 to $3,000 monthly, or roughly between $20,000 and $35,000 annually.
Some residents immediately opposed an additional charge.
"Are you talking about an additional charge to everyone's bill?" asked one resident. "Because the Sky Walk would benefit people on the east side of the creek and I live on the west side and don't see why I should have to pay for this."
Goodwin said any additional charge, if it could get approval from the Arizona Corporation Commission, would more than likely be levied against residents on the east side of Tonto Creek.
He added that an APS charge was not the only possible solution, perhaps the Sky Walk also could sell electricity back to APS to offset some of it's costs if it was powered by solar energy.
Gila County Board of Supervisors Chairman Joe Sanchez attended the meeting and said that if the Sky Walk was run as a concession during non-emergencies, using an APS surcharge for maintenance and operation of the facility and funding from the county might not be possible because it would probably be considered a private enterprise.
He said the county would need more information on whether or not a joint public-private venture would be legal before he would be willing to consider making a commitment to it, assuming it could get approval from the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service as well as environmental groups who fear an impact on the health of the creek and native plants and aquatic life protected under federal environmental laws because pylons for the tramway would be adjacent to the creek on either side of its embankments.
"Unless you are a bird or a fish you're out of luck," said one resident.
Sanchez did encourage Goodwin to continue to pursue private financing for the project.
"I do think that if this was approached and run as a private enterprise it could be a successful business venture," said Sanchez.
He said the increasing population in Tonto Basin and potential tourists from the Valley would probably generate enough revenue to make the Sky Walk viable and even profitable.
Annual flooding of Tonto Creek has been an issue since the early 1990s' and neither the county or state have made a firm commitment to providing the nearly 1,800 residents on the east side of the creek in Tonto Basin with a safe, reliable way to get necessities other than saying they will do their best to keep residents supplied with basic necessities.
The Gila County Works Division, with the help of the sheriff's office, identified 599 households on the east side of Tonto Creek in January of 2005, with about 1,800 people.
After heavy rains in December closed all crossings along Tonto Creek, the county opened an emergency center on the east side at Elm Street and Tonto Basin Road, which only offered basic essential services.
The emergency center is now closed.
As of Monday, March 10 the sheriff's office said two crossings, the Bar-X and Star Crossings, were open to all traffic, but all others remain closed until further notice.
There is one other alternative to getting to the east side of the creek during floods, residents must drive Forest Road 60, or A Cross Road, which winds along the steep side of the Sierra Ancha Mountains eventually hooking up with the Young Road. That dirt road is often impassable except to four-wheel-drive vehicles or ATVs.
Some progress has been made since 2005 towards getting a bridge across Tonto Creek.
In August of that year, the federal government, through the Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA) appropriated $2,960,000 for design and construction of a bridge at Sheep's Crossing, which was labeled a high priority project. Since then little has been accomplished due to funding issues.
Channeled through the Arizona Department of Transportation, the money is released each year for five years in 20 percent increments. ADOT will not release any money until Gila County receives permission from the Army Corps of Engineers and an easement from the U.S. Forest Service.
The county must also match funds at 20 percent. No decisions were arrived at during the meeting attended by Sanchez and about 50 residents.