Bridge Over Tonto Creek ‘Closer Than It Has Ever Been’


With plans nearing completion, a bridge over Tonto Creek could finally happen. Residents and officials have been talking about a bridge since the 1970s and the project has been in development for 18 years.

“We are pretty excited about it, it is closer than it has ever been,” said Steve Stratton, director of Gila County’s Public Works Division.

The county is waiting to hear if it will get the needed $20 million for the project from the federal government.

The county has put in applications for funding through the Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) discretionary grant and Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU).

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced the third round of TIGER funding and the Tonto Creek project was not chosen.

In fact, no project in Arizona received TIGER funding.

The Transportation Depart-ment received 848 applications requesting $14.3 billion, exceeding the $511 million available under the program.

The county is now waiting to see if the SAFETEA-LU funding will come through, although it is unlikely that will happen this year, Stratton said.

The county is looking at putting in a 1,980-foot bridge across Tonto Creek and a 147-foot bridge over Oak Creek. If the county cannot get funding for the larger bridge, it may look to fund the $1.5 million Oak Creek Bridge on its own. Regardless of funding, the county is going ahead with design plans.

“Hopefully, something comes through,” he said.

Both bridges would increase access for residents, who on average cannot cross Tonto Creek 41 days a year, or 12 percent of the time, due to flooding.

In 2010, road closures left residents stranded on the east side of the creek 74 days and in 2009, 79 days. For the half of Tonto Basin residents that live on the east side of the creek, life is put on hold when the creek floods. For the county, work ramps up.

Every year, the county, spends money to ship supplies and mail across and rescue those who brave the floodwaters on their own.

Since 1995, floodwaters have claimed five lives and spurred many rescues.

Congressman Paul Gosar (R-Flagstaff) wrote in support of the project, saying the time for action is now.

“With each resident who attempts to cross the creek in order to get to work, school or medical services, life and limb are risked, sometimes with fatal results,” Gosar wrote. “With each subsequent flooding event, additional private, state and federal monies are expended providing emergency management services to those residents trapped on the east side of Tonto Creek.”

Senator Jon Kyl is also backing the project and asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to give the county’s grant application the “consideration it deserves.”

Initial work is being funded by a $2.8 million SAFETEA-LU earmark the county received several years ago.

The money was budgeted to cover selecting a bridge location and 30 percent of design plans, but Stratton said it has been stretched and that by May, 100 percent of plans should be done.

Currently, plans are 60 percent complete and the county has environmental clearance from the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA).

The bridges will be shovel-ready by late spring, Stratton said.

Current designs call for a bridge near the “modified store crossing.”

The bridge will stretch from Greenback Road near Escondido Road on the east to the top of the hill of Old Highway 188 on the west.

It will have a sidewalk and bike lanes as well as high fencing, Stratton said.

The roadways leading up to the bridge will be improved on both sides.

When the bridge is complete, the county originally said it would close the Bar X and Store Crossings and leave the A-Cross Crossing open. That has changed and now the Bar X Crossing will stay open with the A-Cross closing.

Keeping all the crossings open would be too costly for the county.

On average, the county puts $125,000 a year into emergency rescues and road maintenance, according to the TIGER application.

Residents have used the at-grade dirt road crossings for years to pass over Tonto Creek. While the creek floods, peak discharge rates have been recorded near Punkin Center as high as 128,000 cubic feet per second. These flows make crossing dangerous.

When the creek floods, it hampers residents and emergency crews from crossing.

The Tonto Basin Fire District estimates it does not respond to 2.4 fires a year due to flooding. Steve Holt, Tonto Basin District fire chief, said that due to flooding, several individuals have had to wait for medical care.

Emergency crews shuttled one person with stroke symptoms across Oak Creek in a large military truck, transported them across Roosevelt Lake in a boat and then drove them to Payson in an ambulance. All in the midst of a raging storm.

“This took about three hours to complete and made the patient’s two- to three-hour window for therapy impossible to achieve,” Holt is quoted in the TIGER application.

The cost for the bridges is estimated at $20 million plus, and that does not include the cost of land, Stratton said.

The county now hopes the project is included in the 2011 Transportation Bill.

That bill stretches funding out over six years, meaning the county could not start construction for several years as it accumulated funds.

Stratton hopes by having plans complete, it will make the project more competitive.

Construction of the bridge is expected to create 700 project-related jobs and once complete, help the local economy by offering year-round access, according to Gila County’s TIGER grant application.

If the Tonto Creek bridge project is not funded, the county may go ahead with a smaller bridge south of Tonto Basin over Oak Creek, Stratton said.

That bridge is expected to cost $1.5 million and will link Ewing Trail with Cline Boulevard east of the Butcher Hook.


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