Tonto Creek bridge testimony

William Rawlings, a Tonto Basin resident and the grandfather of children who drowned in Tonto Creek in late November, testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Two different bills to fund a bridge over Tonto Creek in Tonto Basin had their first hearings last week. Both passed, but not without caution lights thrown in their path.

The Senate Appropriations Committee heard District 6 Sen. Sylvia Allen’s SB 1035 Jan. 21 and District 8 Rep. David Cook’s HB 2056 went before the House Transportation Committee Jan. 22.

Allen’s bill seeks $15 million from the state general fund for the department of transportation to distribute to Gila County to construct a bridge over Tonto Creek.

As initially introduced Cook’s bill sought $20 million for the project, but after researching the most likely current costs asked Noel Campbell, chair of the House Transportation Committee, to make an amendment to change the amount to $15 million.

They based the $20 million figure on estimates by engineering consultants Kimley-Horn, a firm with which Gila County has worked on other projects. Cook was provided the bridge design materials by the county and shared them with experts, who estimated the cost at about $18 million. The county has about $3 million set aside for the Tonto Creek bridge project in its budget, plus has done all the work to make it “shovel ready” with not only the design in place, but by also buying the needed property on either side of the creek and securing all the environmental clearances required by the federal government. In fact, all the required pieces to make the project shovel ready have been in place since 2012.

Cook explained that with the county’s $3 million, the state share of the project would be $15 million.

Allen and Cook offered testimony at both hearings. Allen talked about the history of the area, telling the committee members ranchers and farmers settled the area in the 1880s. Efforts to secure a bridge, or just a year round safe access crossing, go as far back as the 1970s, Allen said.

Still eight people have lost their lives trying to cross the creek during flooding.

“The state has the money. This needs to be done. Let’s do it now,” Allen urged the House Transportation Committee members.

Cook told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, “I lay the blame at the feet of the federal government for lack of funding. I want to see the bridge built before the start of the next school year.”

The county has tried to secure funding for the bridge for 17 years, most often seeking federal grant funds.

Gila County Supervisors Woody Cline and Tim Humphrey offered testimony on the need for a bridge and the county’s efforts to find the money for its construction. Humphrey spoke at the Senate committee meeting and Cline addressed the House committee.

“Having the state of Arizona, with Sylvia Allen’s bill and David Cook’s bill mirroring each other in the House and Senate, is a great start. I testified for the Senate bill on the 21st and it passed the Appropriations Committee. I believe this is and will be the best opportunity we have had for funding the Tonto Creek bridge,” Humphrey said.

“I think the Transportation Committee was truly interested in our presentations. Chairman Noel Campbell has worked on the HURF issues for quite awhile, and the Tonto Creek bridge. I believe they were all sincere about the issue at hand and want to help. In the meantime, we as a county, will keep tabs on it and help where we can,” Cline said.

Also speaking at both hearings was William Rawlings, a resident of Tonto Basin and the grandfather of the children who died in late November during flooding of the creek.

Randy Roberson, also a Tonto Basin resident, spoke to the Senate committee and shared a video he had made to support the construction of a bridge over Tonto Creek. While he did not testify at the House hearing, the video was shown there as well.

Roberson recounted his testimony to the Roundup, “Some believe that people in Tonto Basin just go out and play in the creek. The truth is between 1,500 and 2,000 people just struggle to get to work, get to the grocery store or get to medical help when needed. This happens multiple times every year sometimes just for days, but sometimes for weeks and even months. I have flown meds across Tonto Creek for a hospice patient and two other patients who had critical needs for medications and there was no other way across. Just recently one young couple asked if I could get meds for their 4-month-old baby who was suffering from a breathing disorder, which I did. The next day they said the baby was doing worse. By that time I could get our lifted truck across the creek so they asked if I could transport them and their baby to a waiting car on the other side so they could take the child to the hospital ER. After doing so I didn’t hear from them for about three days, after which they called and thanked me, saying the hospital confirmed the baby had RSV. That could have been ugly if they hadn’t taken the child to professional care when they did. This is all part of a very real threat these people live with here every year.”

During Rawlings’ emotional testimony, he also pointed out the frustration of seeing construction of a bridge put off time and time again.

When he and his wife were deciding where to live in Tonto Basin they went to the county about if and when a bridge would be built over the creek.

It was 2010 and he was told it was in the county’s five-year plan. He asked about it again in 2017.

Rawlings shared the following, “I told the person I was speaking with if there was anything I could do, I’d be willing to do it. I had no idea the sacrifice that offer would be for me and my family.”

Another resident told both committees the benefits of a bridge would repay its costs many times over. He said it would make it possible for the land on the east side of the creek to be developed, which would contribute to the county’s tax base; more people could move into the area and expand the workforce and contribute to sales taxes; and it would make the area more accessible for residents of Maricopa County to enjoy for recreational purposes.

Tonto Basin Elementary Principal Chad Greer, speaking to the Senate committee, said when the water is at an unsafe level the students on the east side of the creek can be out of school for weeks at a time. He said the old military vehicle used to transport students over the creek has not operated since November.

“We need a safer way to get the kids to school,” Greer said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted for passage of the funding bill, 8-1. The one “no” vote was from David Livingston, District 22, who chairs the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee. He said there are a lot of bridges that need to be repaired and built in Arizona. He has seen the ADOT list of priorities and this bridge is not on it and since Gov. Ducey has already asked the federal government to fund it, “I want to wait to see what happens through the process and with the budget.”

Rep. Walt Blackman, District 6, testified before the House committee. He said he helped with the search and while doing so, he said he could not help but think of his own family, “It’s been going on a long time (the flooding) and we will continue to lose children and others if we don’t do something. We have done all we can at this point. We cannot place a dollar amount on life.”

The House committee approved the funding bill, 8-0, with one member absent. However, member Kevin Payne, District 21, expressed some reluctance, saying he wants the federal government to pay for it and suggested they could make the bridge narrower to reduce the cost. The site for construction requires the bridge to be nearly 2,000 feet long and approximately 40 feet wide. Payne said he felt it could be about half as long as proposed and therefore cost less.

Regarding Payne’s remarks before his vote, Supervisor Cline said, “I understand, but the fact is they are not going to do it, in my opinion. They have not funded the project for the past several years even though we have submitted applications for funding each year. To keep trying to get federal funds could take no telling how long, if ever. So, I hope Mr. Payne will see that and support this bill on the floor.”

The next scheduled hearing for SB 1035 is in the Rules Committee, HB 2056 is slated to go to the House Appropriations Committee and then to the Rules Committee. No dates have been set for any of those hearings.

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