Construction of a bridge that could provide safe passage to 1,000 vehicles a day in Tonto Basin is one step closer to fruition after county officials met with homeowners Tuesday.
After reviewing nearly six years of work at a second public hearing, officials are now waiting to clear the final layers of administrative red tape.
Gila County is waiting on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to provide its biological assessment of the bridge and the federal government to decide if it will fund the $18-million project.
The USFWS should give its answer by June 22, but when the funding will come through is unknown.
The proposed bridge would span 1,980 feet over Tonto Creek and provide safe passage for east side residents during winter floods when the meandering stream turns into a raging river. Peak discharge rates for the creek near Punkin Center can reach as high as 128,000 cubic feet per second, according to a draft of an environmental assessment for Tonto Creek bridge.
Every year, several vehicles are rescued from the creek after drivers attempt to cross at one of three at-grade water crossings. Moreover, since 1995, four people have died attempting to cross during flooding.
While residents and the county have worked together to shuttle supplies across when the creek floods using a military GI vehicle, officials saw the need for a permanent solution.
In 2005, then Congressman Rick Renzi had $3 million earmarked from the Transportation Equity Act to cover a feasibility study for a bridge.
On Tuesday, Chuck Williams, Gila County project manager; Dave Leistiko, Kimley-Horn project manager; Nancy Shelton, of Logan Simpson Design; and county officials gave an update on the project during a public hearing at the Tonto Basin Elementary School.
Steve Stratton, Gila County Public Works Division director, said 30 percent of the design plan is complete and the county anticipates paying for the rest of the plan with the remaining earmark.
The county cannot, however, go forward with the other 70 percent of the design until USFWS rules on the environmental impact of the bridge.
That decision won’t come until at least June 22 after USFWS receives a 60-day extension.
Among other things, USFWS is studying what impact the bridge would have on several endangered species that call the creek home.
Stratton is optimistic USFWS will give its stamp of approval and the project can go forward.
The public still has time to add its input on the bridge before any plans are accepted.
East side resident Leo Coombs said most residents support a bridge, but he worries it could take away some of the rural charm that drew him to the area.
“I have mixed emotions about it,” he said. “I can understand why they want the bridge for the convenience.”
Coombs said he bought his property knowing he would have limited access to Punkin Center when the creek flooded, but bought anyway because he liked the rural atmosphere. With easier access to the east side of the creek, he worries more people will come, especially weekend visitors. That could ruin some of that rural appeal.
On average, an estimated 1,340 vehicle trips are made across Tonto Creek each day, according to the county.
Coombs said with a bridge, that number would increase.
Stratton said some residents have expressed concern over increased noise with a bridge.
However, noise pollution should be low, he said, with noise increasing only one to two decimals.
In terms of pollution, a bridge could help eliminate vehicle fluids from getting in the creek.
That’s because with the location chosen for the bridge, Gila County has agreed to end maintenance at the Bar X and Store (Greenback Valley Road) Crossings. The A-Cross Crossing would remain open.
Fewer vehicles in the creek means fewer pollutants in the water.
“I want people to understand it is not something we wanted, but something we had to give up to get fish and wildlife to consider the bridge,” he said. “Having to stop maintenance at Bar X and Store Crossing is part of the trade off.”
The proposed bridge, being called the “Modified Store Alternative” due to its proximity to the low-water Store Crossing, begins on the east side of the creek on a hill just above the Tonto Basin Elementary School and stretches to the Greenback Valley Road on the east side.
The location was chosen for its proximity to the school, fire station and post office.
It also has the highest existing traffic volume and would have the lowest cultural and biological impacts.
“I like it because all the traffic does not have to go through Punkin Center,” Stratton said.
Where the bridge connects on the west side, motorists could head north through Punkin Center or head south and connect directly with Highway 188, bypassing town.
The county considered several other locations for the bridge, including north of town and at the Bar X and A-Cross Crossings.
The bridge north of Tonto Basin was nixed because it would require 2.5 miles of new road, cost more and have high cultural and biological impacts. The Bar X bridge would have been the longest alternative.
The county also considered doing nothing and leaving the existing crossings in place.
This, however, would limit access to the east side of Tonto Creek during flooding that has historically made Tonto Creek impassable for an average of two to three weeks annually.
Flooding from a January 2010 storm limited creek access for more than two months and cost the county $400,000.
“In addition to the difficulties and safety issues endured by area residents and public agencies, responses to flood events have enormous costs,” according to the feasibility draft.
From 2003 to 2008, continued road closures and emergency response efforts have cost Gila County more than $300,000 and annual non-flood-related maintenance of the crossings exceeds $40,000.
Beyond Tonto Creek, Oak Creek often overtops Cline Boulevard, limiting north-south travel on the east side.
“Permanent all-weather crossings of Tonto Creek and Oak Creek are needed to provide connectivity for residents, emergency services, and visitors between the east and west sides of Tonto Creek and for those traveling from north and south of Oak Creek to the proposed all-weather crossing at Tonto Creek,” the draft states.
Therefore, south of Tonto Basin, a smaller, 140-foot bridge over Oak Creek is proposed to connect Ewing Trail with Cline Boulevard east of the Butcher Hook.
The cost for both bridge projects is $18 million and construction is expected to last between a year and 14 months.
The county hopes to cover a majority of the project costs with federal funding.
Stratton hopes Congress and the Senate will include the project in the 2011 Transportation Bill. While the county is prepared to pick up 5.7 percent of the $18 million bill, Stratton said without federal support, the project is dead.
The county doesn’t yet know if it is included in the bill, which is passed every six years. That means if the county misses its chance this year, it will have to wait six years to reapply for funding.
“If approved for construction, we could get underway and draw down on the $3 million per year,” Stratton said.
The county will cover its share of the bill with sales tax collections.
Gila County is working with the Federal Highway Administration, Arizona Depart-ment of Transportation, Tonto National Forest, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kimley-Horn and Associates and Logan Simpson Design on the project.
Learn more about the bridge at www. tontocreekbridge.com.
If you have comments, write to ADOT, c/o Nancy Shelton, Logan Simpson Design Inc., 51 West Third Street, Suite 450, Tempe, AZ 85281, send an e-mail to: email@example.com or fax to (480) 966-9232. Submit comments by July 5.