Construction for Tonto Basin bridge set to start in October despite opposition

Posted at 4:00 AM, Jun 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-27 16:06:42-04

TONTO BASIN, AZ — Tonto Creek in Gila County is an area prone to the power of Mother Nature during the monsoon.

A $23-million bridge is set to be built that will connect one side of the creek to the other, and hopefully save lives.

Military-style truck recovered from Tonto Basin

Construction is currently slated to start in the fall, which is later than initially planned.

Gila County Public Works Director Steve Sanders told ABC15 there are two major holdups right now: a species of bird and a cell tower.

The willow flycatcher nests in the area during the summer months.

"We'll have to wait until October to do any clearing and grubbing," Sanders said.

Also, a cell tower is in the way on the west side where the bridge would start. Sanders said the plan is to move the tower further back by September, hopefully without disrupting cellphone and internet service to people in the area.

Opposition from residents

When the creek floods, the dirt road crossings in the area can oftentimes become impassable and dangerous.

About half of the residents in the remote community of Tonto Basin live on the east side of the creek, isolated from many services on the west side when the creek floods.

Despite a bridge that would hopefully make traveling easier during those times, many residents seem to be against the plan.

Tonto Basin Public Library librarian Julie Fisher has been living in the area for several years. She told ABC15 she left the Valley to get away from people and be with nature.

"I was joking going to work I had to stop for bunnies, quail, and a roadrunner," she said. "That's the traffic!"

Her commute involves traveling from her home on the east side of the creek to the library on the west side. That'll be easier said than done, though, during the next several months when the rain comes.

Tonto Creek generic

"If people are telling you it's too deep to cross, don't cross."

You'd think a bridge would maybe be a helpful addition to the neighborhood. Fisher thinks it'll be anything but.

"I would say about 95 percent of the people that come through [the library's] door and I talk to are not for it," she said. "It's a lot of money to spend."

The millions of dollars getting pumped into the bridge project are from a federal grant that was announced in September 2020.

 In January 2020, Governor Doug Ducey called on the U.S. Department of Transportation to fund the bridge project, which was included as a policy priority in the Governor’s State of the State address.

Sanders said the bridge will be maintained after it is built with money from the state's gas tax.

Fisher said other main concerns from residents are that the new infrastructure might bring more development to the extremely rural area. 

Sanders said he doesn't think that is likely, considering 97% of Gila County is federal land and not private land that can be developed. 

"You're not going to see it grow like the outlying areas of the Valley just because the land's not there," he said.

Tragedy sparks action

The bridge project has been debated for decades, but only got national attention and action from the government after a tragedy involving children at the creek.

In November 2019, the Rawlings family tried to drive their oversized military-style vehicle through a part of Tonto Creek called Bar X Crossing. It's about five miles south of where the bridge is planned to be built.

Their vehicle got stuck in the heavy flooding and three children in the vehicle were swept away.

Daniel Rawlings pleaded guilty to several counts of manslaughter and child abuse in the deaths of his two children and niece.

Search for Willa Rawlings

His wife, Lacey, also pleaded guilty to child abuse charges in a plea deal.

The two were sentenced to supervised probation earlier this year.

Sanders said he believes it was that incident that put the project into motion.

"There had been previous tragedies, drownings out here and stuff, but that's the one that caught the national attention and I think, you know, helped get the funding for the bridge," Sanders said.

What's next?

Despite the delays and opposition, the plan to start building the bridge in October is in motion.

Sanders confirmed the Arizona Department of Transportation is opening up bids for contractors Friday, June 17. Then, ADOT will likely choose a contractor's plan for the bridge sometime in July.

Once the building starts, the county said it'll take 18 to 24 months to complete.