flooded creek

While the county may have secured the funding, it will be some time before they build a bridge over Tonto Creek.

The county has to complete several federal agreements, update environmental studies, update plans and get bids.

All told, the project is expected to cost more than $24 million and could take two years to get off the ground.

Gila County Public Works director Steve Sanders and other officials expect to meet before the end of November to hammer out intergovernmental agreements to build the long-needed bridge in Tonto Basin. Sanders said the kickoff meetings are with the Arizona Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.

Gila County was recently awarded a Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grant in the amount of $21 million for the construction of the bridge across Tonto Creek. The county is chipping in $3.38 million.

When completed the bridge will be 1,981 feet long and 40 feet wide. It will have two 12-foot traffic lanes with shoulders and a sidewalk.

“Local agencies receive BUILD grant funds one of two ways — either as a direct recipient or through a State DOT agreement,” Sanders explained to the Roundup. “Gila County has asked that our BUILD funds come through our State DOT.”

To accomplish this, Gila County, the Arizona Department of Transportation, and the Federal Highway Administration, will enter an agreement for the project.

Sanders said it could take 12 months to complete the agreement. During this time, ADOT and the county will also complete an intergovernmental agreement for ADOT to administer the project. He said the timeline for this agreement could take 12 months.

Agreements are also being put in place for the county to update the environmental document needed for the construction, Sanders said.

He added that once agreements are in place the plans, specifications, utility and right of way clearances would be updated and finalized for bidding. This part of the project could take six to nine months.

Once everything is finalized the project can be advertised for bid, according to Sanders.

Project description

The project replaces an at-grade dirt road that crosses Tonto Creek with a bridge between Old State Highway 188 and Greenback Valley Road in Tonto Basin. The project also widens and improves approximately 1.5 miles of Old State Highway 188 connecting to the bridge.

Project highlights and benefits

The project generates safety benefits by constructing all-weather access across Tonto Creek where there is currently an at-grade dirt road crossing, and improving emergency response time across the creek.

Since 1995, eight people have died attempting to cross Tonto Creek under high-water conditions. Due to high water, the at-grade roads crossing Tonto Creek are closed an average of 25 days each year, and the nearest detour adds approximately 71 miles and still requires high-clearance vehicles.

Avoiding the detour generates travel time savings by creating a more direct and accessible connection to school, jobs, and other essential services that are inaccessible during high-water events.

The project eliminates soil disturbance and the presence of oil, grease, and gasoline in the creek from vehicles crossing the creek bed, and also improves air quality by replacing approximately 1.5 miles of dirt road. The project restores permanent connectivity between the east and west sides of Tonto Basin.

U.S. Department of Transportation information on the BUILD 2020 Award:

• 70 projects were selected for BUILD funds

• $1 billion in funding was awarded

• 58 capital grants

• 12 planning grants

• 68 grants received FY20 funding; 2 grants received reallocated FY19 funding

• 55 grants will be administered by FHWA, including 10 planning grants

BUILD award a relief from years of disappointment

Earlier this year both the Arizona Senate and House passed bills to allocate $15 million from the Arizona Department of Transportation to build a bridge over Tonto Creek in Tonto Basin.

The long-standing hopes to get a bridge over the creek to allow residents to safely cross during flooding were dashed when Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a scaled down emergency state budget March 28.

The $11.8 billion budget for July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021 essentially contained no new spending beyond required inflation adjustments and promised raises for teachers, according to a report in the Arizona Capitol Times.

At the time, Jacque Sanders, deputy county manager for Gila County said, “The Arizona Legislature and governor have put a pause on all funding out of the state surplus, but Gila County is proceeding with applying to the federal Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or BUILD Transportation Discretionary Grant program — formerly known as Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant funding.”

She added the county is once again worked with the governor’s office, the Arizona Department of Commerce and congressional representatives and senators for support for the grant application.

Additionally, Gila County is updating the environmental assessment related to the Tonto Creek bridge project.

The two bills requesting funding for the bridge had their first hearings in January. District 6 Sen. Sylvia Allen’s SB 1035 was heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee Jan. 21 and District 8 Rep. David Cook’s HB 2056 went before the House Transportation Committee Jan. 22.

Earlier in January, Ducey passed the proposed project on to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

A press release Jan. 8 from the governor’s office stated Ducey sent a letter to Elaine Chao, secretary of transportation, “urging her to prioritize funding for the Tonto Creek bridge in Gila County.”

The governor only suggests the project would be an “excellent candidate” for part of the $1 billion Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development grant program authorized in the fiscal year 2020 spending bill by President Trump in December 2019.

Ducey’s letter pointed out people have died while attempting to cross the flooded creek — most recently the three children who were visiting the area in November 2019.

“Gila County has applied for several federal grants for the project, including a BUILD grant, but were denied. The most recent denial came just weeks before the latest tragedy,” Ducey wrote to Chao.

Over the years the county has received some funds from both the federal and state government for the Tonto Creek bridge project, allowing it to do environmental studies, purchase rights of way and have the structure designed. However, none of the funds awarded have been enough to complete the entire project.

Contact the reporter at tmcquerrey@payson.com

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