Tonto Basin Turns Out For Bridge Talk

$10-$20 million bridge could cost $20,000 per resident on the far side, but spur development and save lives


A Tonto Basin resident makes an emphatic point about the need to clear the approaches to a proposed bridge over Tonto Creek.

A Tonto Basin resident makes an emphatic point about the need to clear the approaches to a proposed bridge over Tonto Creek. |

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

Troubled waters: Project Manager Chuck Williams details the four proposed sites for a bridge over Tonto Creek.

Nearly 200 people showed up Tuesday, with their hopes up to have their say about a long-discussed bridge over Tonto Creek.

Floodwaters have claimed the lives of at least five people trying to get from one side of the creek to the other using the current crossings. Flooding closes those crossings an estimated 70 days per year, sometimes trapping perhaps 1,000 people who live on the east side of the Tonto Creek for weeks at a time.

The mounting death toll has revived federal interest in a 1,700-foot-long bridge that could cost anywhere from $10 million to $20 million.

A big chunk of the 600 to 1,200 people who live on the wrong side of the creek when it storms, showed up at a meeting Tuesday night sponsored by Gila County to give their views on four potential crossing sites, all north or south of Punkin Center, which lies about 30 miles south of Payson near the tip of Roosevelt Lake.

After many inconclusive studies dating back to the mid 1980s, the federal government has put up some $2.5 million to conduct a detailed engineering and environmental study of four proposed bridge sites. This is the most concrete evidence the long-suffering residents of Tonto Basin have ever gathered of federal interest in actually building the bridge.

“We’ve had a place here for many years, and now we have eight grandchildren,” said Darlene Justus. “I’ve been fearful for such a long time that some child will drown — and that only then would we be building a bridge.”

“This is the first time it actually sounds like it might happen,” said her husband, Bill Justus.

For the bridge to be built, the county will have to finish the engineering study, come up with cost estimates, quantify the economic benefits and consider the impact on endangered plants, animals and potential archeological sites. That should take 18 months. Only then, can the county hope to slip the bridge into the federal highway administration’s five-year plan.

Project Manager Chuck Williams said federal approval of the $2.5-million for the preliminary study suggests the project has a “good chance” of winning funding eventually.

The Tuesday meeting drew a standing room only crowd to the cavernous gym at the Tonto Basin Elementary School in Punkin Center.

The project team ran through a slide show and pointed out on a huge map the four potential crossing sites — two close to Punkin Center, one well north and a fourth to the south.

Attendees favor center alignments

At one point during a show of hands, not a single person favored either the northernmost or southernmost alignments, both of which were more expensive than the two center alignments preferred by residents.

Throughout the evening, an air of palpable hope mingled with the skepticism born of years of futile pleas and studies.

Williams estimated the bridge cost could run from $10 or $20 million, based on the cost of other 1,700-foot-long bridges over flood-prone, but often dry streams. The census lists the population on the far side of the river at about 600, but residents said it really has grown to 1,000 to 1,200.

Even with 1,000 residents, the bridge would cost $10,000 to $20,000 per resident.

However, advocates say the bridge would also open the east side of the creek to increased development, although the overwhelming majority of land belongs to the Tonto National Forest.

Gila County Supervisor Ed Pastore said a reliable, paved, all-weather crossing would also provide access to the largely undeveloped North Shore of Roosevelt Lake, increase potential for development all along the river — and most important of all — save lives during floods.

“The potential is not only for the people who live on the other side of the river, the potential is for recreational development — this would open up the whole other side (of Roosevelt Lake).”

Pastore said the county is lobbying First District Congress-woman Ann Kirkpatrick to push through funding for the bridge as quickly as possible.

Williams said funding will likely turn on the results of the preliminary study, which will prepare about a third of the engineering plans — enough to put the project out to bid and come up with firm cost estimates.

The fitful Tonto Creek poses special problems for bridge builders, since it’s still depositing sand and boulders washed out of the mountains in the streambed. That means engineers will have to find a way to keep the space under any bridge from filling up with boulders and sand and probably come up with money to maintain the approaches to the bridge so the streambed doesn’t become so clogged and overgrown that a flood prompts it to jump its banks and go around the bridge with potentially disastrous consequences.

In addition, the region is thick with archeological ruins, especially near the creek bed, which has been farmed by human beings for thousands of years.

The on-again, off-again riparian area may also shelter a variety of endangered species — including bald eagles that nest in cottonwoods along the streambed.

The project managers devoted the bulk of the 90-minute meeting to answering questions and urging people to go to the project Web site for additional details (www.tontocreekbridge.com). People can also submit comments on the four proposed sites through the Web site.

Most residents favored a bridge either at the existing crossing near the Punkin Center Store or about four miles south where Forest Road 470 crosses the creek and connects to Cline Boulevard.

Either of those central locations would involve about 1,700 feet of bridge and about half a mile of new roadway.

The northernmost site — at the existing dirt road — would involve a 1,200-foot bridge and perhaps four miles of new paved roadway. The southernmost proposed site would involve a long bridge and could also end up submerged if Roosevelt Lake ever completely fills up.

Williams said the two center crossings will probably get most of the attention in the study, unless the preliminary results turn up some quirk of geology that would make the other two sites a much better place for a bridge.

Many of the questions from the mostly friendly audience centered on whether the project would end up shutting down the existing unbridged crossings.

“I’d rather not have a bridge than lose those other crossings,” said one audience member.

But Williams said he had no idea how the study or the bridge might affect those other crossings.

“We just don’t know at this time,” he said. “There are a lot of issues with those low-water crossings, and as we go through this, we’ll keep that information out there.”

Several residents emphasized the need to better manage the stream, with or without the bridged crossing. The major floods of 1993 ripped out much of the once-lush streamside vegetation and gouged major changes in the streambed.

Non-native Tamarisk has replaced the native riparian plants along much of the creek, forming dense tangles.

“You need to come down in there with a D9 Cat and make some strategic cuts to keep the water flowing,” said one rancher.

“Now, you can’t even walk through there.”

“When I got here, it was just a beautiful creek,” said another resident. “But the ’93 floods just tore all that out and it never came back.”

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