Gov. Doug Ducey won’t commit to seek $20 million for a bridge over a creek where three people died last month even as he formally dedicated a $1.7 billion freeway designed largely to help Phoenix area commuters.
The governor said Wednesday the state currently is in a financial position to be able to make “additional infrastructure investments.” And he cited $130 million set aside this past legislative session to widen Interstate 17 north of Phoenix.
The new South Mountain Freeway, part of Loop 202, is designed to connect parts of Phoenix that are inaccessible from the west to the rest of the area. Of the cost, 40 percent came from federal sources, with the balance from a sales tax Maricopa County voters imposed on themselves and about $350 million from state gasoline taxes and vehicle license fees.
And what of the $20 million being sought by Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, for the bridge over Tonto Creek?
“We’re going to look at every other request and properly prioritize,” Ducey said.
Cook introduced legislation earlier this week to set aside $20 million for the Department of Transportation to build a bridge in the Tonto Basin at the Bar X crossing in Gila County. Willa Rawlings, her brother Colby and their cousin Austin were killed after the vehicle they were in was swept away in Tonto Creek during a rainstorm.
Cook said Gila County already has done the environmental studies, purchased the right of way and designed the structure. He said if HB 2056 is fast-tracked the span could be in place before the next rainy season.
And Cook said there’s no reason that rural areas of the state should be any lower priority than urban roads.
At the ceremony Wednesday on the yet-to-be-opened freeway, the governor said the project will take traffic off Interstate 10 and away from downtown Phoenix. He said that congestion is a direct result of the state’s booming economy.
Others at the event had their own take on the merits of the project, including Michael Bidwill, owner of the Arizona Cardinals. He said the freeway will cut the time it takes people from certain parts of the Phoenix area to drive to his team’s stadium in Glendale.
Also present was Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, which got the project altered part-way through construction to create a new exit to funnel traffic to his tribe’s Vee Quiva casino and resort.
But as to those dollars for the Tonto Creek bridge, Ducey remains noncommittal.
“I’m going to take a look at it,” he said.
“Like I said, we got a lot of requests, we have requests every year,” the governor continued. “And we’re going to prioritize and then form the budget.”
Cook, for his part, said he sees the bridge as a top priority — and one worthy of special consideration for funding by the state, separate and apart from any budget that Ducey will propose in January.
“How many more lives are going to be lost at this exact site, now or in the future, before somebody decides to act?” he asked.
“Now’s the time to do something,” Cook continued. “If not now, when?”
More to the point, Cook wants to have the appropriation approved soon after the Legislature convenes next month and not wait until a budget is adopted for the new fiscal year starting July 1. He said county officials have told him they believe that once funds become available the bridge could be completed in six months.
About 1,500 people live on the far side of the creek. When it floods, they are stranded there, with no access to emergency services.
There were signs put in place at what is known as the Bar X crossing last month warning people not to drive in. But residents have said people have been driving around the barriers for years.
That’s what happened last month when Lacey and Daniel Rawlings, the parents of Willa and Colby, attempted to cross in a large flatbed truck. The vehicle did not make it all the way.
County officials have been seeking funding, initially from the federal government, for decades.
And he rejected questions about whether it’s the obligation of the state to deal with a situation where residents knew when they moved into the area that the creek regularly floods – and that residents have ignored the temporary barriers. Cook said safety is the government’s role “regardless of the population.”
“Are we going to discount the citizens who live in rural Arizona (versus) those that live in metropolitan and downtown Phoenix?” he said. “Their lives are less valuable than putting in a crosswalk at 43rd Avenue (in Phoenix) where the tragedies continue to happen over there and people getting hit by cars?”
Cook acknowledged that projects like a new crosswalk generally are paid for out of local funds rather than being the financial obligation of taxpayers across the state. But he said it can be considered a state need because people other than area residents use the crossing.
And then there’s the economic argument.
“This could drive investment which could be more housing,” Cook said.
“It could be more development for a larger tax base,” he continued, saying only about 4 percent of the land in Gila County is in private hands, with the rest owned by the government or on tribal reservations. “We don’t know what the possibilities are or will be in the future if this is done.”
Cook said the final price tag for the state could end up less than $20 million if the county can come up with additional dollars.