Just a year after a pedestrian bridge was rebuilt at one of the most popular tourist destinations in Rim Country, it needs to come out.
In May last year, the pedestrian walkway on the Gowan Trail was completed two weeks early and on budget.
But while building a new footbridge on the original supports saved time and money, it left the footbridge stressed and officials deemed it unsafe. Now, the bridge must be moved out of the 100-year flood plain and replaced.
Former State Parks Director Sue Black and Tonto Natural Bridge State Park manager Dan Roddy pushed an ambitious list of projects and park enhancements — all with short deadlines.
Before long, there were allegations of cutting corners and shoddy projects.
An archaeologist and former state parks employee then released documents that alleged archaeological sites had been disrupted throughout the state parks. This resulted in multiple ongoing civil and criminal investigations.
Gov. Doug Ducey fired Black in November along with deputy director Jim Keegan. Roddy was promoted and moved to Lake Havasu State Park.
Ducey appointed Robert Broscheid as the new director of state parks in February and Sarah Kirk came on as the bridge’s new manager earlier this year. She recently resigned for unknown reasons.
All the while, nobody within the parks system would talk to the Roundup about questions that a garden at the bridge was built in an archaeological site or the status of the new pedestrian bridge.
The park had closed the Gowan Trail and bridge through the winter due to ice and snow. In the spring, officials re-opened the trail, but kept the pedestrian footbridge closed.
After months of “no comment,” the Roundup received an email May 21 from Arizona State Parks and Trails community relations manager Micaela Larkin.
Larkin’s email referenced “a proposed budget plan, including a FY 2020 capital appropriation of $1,250,000 from the state parks revenue fund to construct a new pedestrian bridge at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park and remove an existing pedestrian bridge.”
When she learned the Roundup had questions about the footbridge, she conferenced in Broscheid.
Broscheid said he understands that the park is important to Rim Country residents and visitors and is doing everything in his power to replace the footbridge.
Two inspectors assessed the status of the footbridge in February, just before Ducey appointed Broscheid. They determined it is stressed and unsafe.
The entire pedestrian bridge needs to be replaced and moved out of the 100-year flood plain, they said.
“The money budgeted gives us the opportunity to get the plans, then return with them to the Joint Committee on Capital Review,” Broscheid said. “At that point, we would like to get up to Payson and show everybody what this will look like.”
The parks system is working with an engineering firm on the plans, but says it will take time to complete.
If approved, Broscheid estimates deconstruction of the old bridge could be done before winter weather suspends the project.
The new bridge could be in place by the summer of 2020.
“It’s important we make it safe for the public and build it to last for 100 years,” he said. “If we’re going to spend this kind of money we should get a quality project that the public can rely on.”
Broscheid said he is committed to getting the pedestrian bridge replaced.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park visitors contribute an estimated $7 million a year in revenue to the Rim Country economy, according to some estimates.
While the footbridge and observation deck are closed, the Gowan Trail and other trails and observation points within the park are open.
As of press time, the state had not passed a budget and the funding for the bridge repairs was still in limbo.
There is no update yet on the archaeological investigations.