A proposed bridge over Tonto Creek is gaining statewide attention after the tragic drowning of three Valley children Nov. 29 at the Bar-X Crossing.
For nearly 20 years, Gila County has applied unsuccessfully for federal funds for the proposed Tonto Creek Bridge, near Tonto Basin.
The county learned in November that it did not receive funding once again, after applying in June for $17.42 million under the fiscal year 2019 Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) Transportation grant program.
The Trump administration announced at the beginning of the year that it had $900 million to distribute for BUILD projects across 35 states for some 55 infrastructure projects.
Two Arizona projects—one urban and one rural—each received grant awards last month, but Gila County’s proposed bridge was not one of them. The Phoenix Sky Harbor Northside Rail Expansion Project received $24 million, while Florence’s Inland Port Arizona Improvement Project received about $15.3 million.
During his three years in office, Gila County Dist. 2 Supervisor Tim Humphrey said he has made the trip three times to Washington, DC, advocating for the Tonto Creek Bridge project.
“I have met with our congressmen and senators to keep them updated on the project and ask for letters of support for our grant projects—first under the TIGER grant program and, for the past two years, under the BUILD grant program,” Humphrey said.
Arizona’s congressional delegation weighs in
Arizona’s U.S. Senators Martha McSally and Krysten Sinema and Congressmen Paul Gosar and Tom O’Halleran wrote letters of support in June and July.
The delegation’s letters addressed common themes of safety concerns and limited access to critical services such as schools, jobs and health care facilities when the creek floods—a frequent occurrence due to heavy rainfall and snowmelt.
Building the bridge would create a safe passage point for east-west access across the Tonto Basin, improving outbound access to safety as well as inbound access by first responders. It would be the only over-water thoroughfare for those living on the east side of Tonto Creek, where, currently, residents have to seek out a 75-mile detour during floods, they said.
Since 1995, five people have died as a result of annual Tonto Creek flooding, not including the recent deaths at the Bar-X Crossing.
Without flood mitigation, area road closures average 25 days per year, a condition that not only poses serious safety issues, but also limits economic investment and development, the delegation explained.
Construction of the bridge would help grow the local economy by promoting development on non-federal land, of which there is very little (1.5%) not under mine tailings.
Another economic benefit would be improved access to recreation sites such as the Tonto National Forest and Roosevelt Lake, recreation sites that thousands of Arizonans visit each year, they said.
Gila County’s contribution
In its BUILD application, the county asked for 85% of the project’s $20.49 million total cost, planning to fund the rest ($3.07 million) using its transportation tax funds as well as its share of state gas tax revenue.
While the county’s significant investment signifies the bridge’s importance to both the local area and the region, the county would not be able to construct it without federal investment.
Arizona’s congressional delegation pointed out that, ultimately, Tonto Creek flooding is caused by overflows downstream from the Roosevelt Dam—a federal project. And it’s a federal regulation—the Endangered Species Act—that prevents the county from managing the creek bed to minimize flood impacts, they said.
Last year, while Humphrey was in DC, he participated in a debriefing session with U.S. Department of Transportation staff “to gain insight into the grant process and ask for guidance on how to put together a more competitive grant proposal,” he said.
“It was their suggestion that we add the ‘human element’ to our project,” Humphrey said. In May 2019, the county hosted a community meeting, gathering local interviews and creating a video to accompany the 2019 grant application, to help illustrate local stories of hardship that the lack of a bridge causes local residents and businesses. [See Video Above]
The backdrop for these interviews is footage of volunteer George Ewing transporting school children in his 1966 retired military truck to Tonto Basin Elementary School. The school currently has a total of 80 students, about 25 of whom Ewing transports when the creek floods—an arrangement made years ago by the students’ parents.
In addition to the 2018 debriefing, three and a half years ago Gila County participated in a telephone debriefing under the TIGER grant process. The county was told that while its application had made the final round, there was just not enough money to fund all of the final round projects.
Once again, the county plans to participate in the January 2020 debriefing held for the unsuccessful 2019 grant applications.
The State of Arizona joins the conversation
In the meantime, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey recently indicated he would work to find money in the upcoming state budget for the proposed Tonto Creek Bridge project.
In a recent exchange with an Associated Press reporter, Ducey said, “We’re going to look at the infrastructure needs of the state. I’ve heard the asks on this bridge and it’s certainly going to be considered in this budget session.”
Asked if it made sense to spend $20 million to help 1,200 people when Arizona is home to 7 million, Ducey replied that the state’s economy is booming, even with what he described as problems—temporary as they are.
“We’re in a position where we’re going to invest in infrastructure,” said Ducey, adding that he wanted to look at all priorities before presenting them in the budget.
Ducey went onto say that the governor’s role is protecting the health and safety of all Arizona citizens.
“We’re a big state with 15 counties—rural and urban areas—along with tribal lands, so we’re going to take a look at all the priorities,” he said.
Ducey said that his office is currently working on a proposed budget, which will be ready in early January 2020.
State Senator Sylvia Allen, whose district includes Tonto Basin, said she knows that Gila County has been applying as long as she’s held office.
Allen both applauds and echoes Ducey’s recent comments that public safety and infrastructure are priorities for the legislature, as well. “I hope we can make this happen,” she said.
Pointing out that the “Senate and House budget is not exactly like the Governor’s budget,” Allen says she plans to make the funding proposal from the legislative side.
“I’ll try to get my fellow rural legislators to support it,” said Allen, describing Rep. Walt Blackman, of Snowflake, as “already gung ho for it.”
For its part, Gila County remains committed to applying for any viable grant process at any and all levels to accomplish the Tonto Creek Bridge project.
Responding to Ducey’s comments, Humphrey said, “The county has been applying unsuccessfully, for federal grants for the past 20 years. Until now, there has not been a state grant opportunity that this project qualified for.”
Humphrey continued, “If the state and the governor created a path for the Tonto Creek Bridge project to be funded, we would be thrilled.”
While the federal grant cycle has yet to be announced, county officials anticipate it will open in the spring of 2020.
Award winning journalist with over 18 years experience in covering local news and issues affecting rural communities. Married 37 years, my life has taken me from Phoenix to Willcox to Globe. My husband and I are both overjoyed to find ourselves in Globe-Miami, with its rich history and sense of community. This is truly home.