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$21 million grant approved to build bridge over deadly Tonto Basin creek area

Posted at 11:20 AM, Sep 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-11 01:47:49-04

State officials announced Thursday that $21 million will be used to build a bridge where three young children died during a flood last year.

The funding comes after the most recent deadly incident that occurred in November 2019 in the Tonto Basin area. Officials said three children were in a vehicle that was swept away during flooding. Their bodies were eventually found after an extensive search.

"They will be able to get to school. They will be able to get to work. They will be able to function as people and the rest of the world do," said Tim Humphrey, the Supervisor for Gila County District 2.

"I think it’s been being worked on for 17 years... Finally, rural Arizona made enough noise to be heard in Washington," said Humphrey.

The area is known for its dangerous terrain during wet weather, and according to Senator Martha McSally's office, a total of eight people have died trying to cross the flooded Tonto Creek since 1995.

ABC15 spoke with a resident following the November tragedy, Lucy Heisler, who has lived on the east side of the creek in Tonto Basin for years.

"You only cross out of necessity, it’s not something you do for fun," said Heisler.

Many of the roughly 900 people on the east side, like Lucy, caravan through the unpredictable creek when it floods.

"You pray that you don’t hit anything as you’re going through there and that the water is like you think it is," said Heisler.

"There’s been three different occasions where I’ve used a drone to fly meds across to critically ill patients," said Randy Roberson, who lives on the other side of the creek.

"[A storm] makes your heart sink a bit. Just wondering if you’re gonna be stuck over there and for how long," said Sylvia Huguley, who has lived on the other side in the past, but since moved, in part due to the flooding.

"That’s going to help a lot of people sleep better at night when they hear raindrops on the roof," said Humphrey.

Gila County will receive the funding under the fiscal year 2020 Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) discretionary grants program, which was signed into law by the Trump Administration in 2019.

Supervisor Humphrey hopes construction will begin in the next year and the bridge can be completed in the next two years.

Senator Kyrsten Sinema also highlighted safety concerns without the bridge, noting that it limits access to schools, jobs, and healthcare in the Tonto Basin community. She said in addition to safety benefits, construction of the bridge would also lead to economic growth and encourage private investment on the non-federal land in Gila County.

The push to get funding to build a bridge started less than a month after the November 2019 incident. Governor Doug Ducey had said he would consider providing money in the state budget and that it was a priority.

Representative David Cook introduced a bill asking for $20 million to build a bridge at the “Bar X Crossing” where the family vehicle was swept away. The House Transportation Committee voted unanimously to move a bill in early 2020.

Daniel and Lacey Rawlings who were driving their children and niece when the vehicle was swept away, are still facing charges for the kids' deaths.

So far, neither has gone to trial.