Artist rendering courtesy The Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, This image depicts a proposed wildlife bridge over Oracle Road north of Oro Valley. The Regional Transportation Authority Board voted last week to move forward on a plan to build the bridge and two other wildlife crossings, tunnels that would sit beneath Oracle Road. The estimated cost for the structures tops more than $8 million, to be paid with money allocated from the RTA roadway improvement plan.

Bridges built especially for animals to cross highways have come one step closer to reality in Pima County.

The Regional Transportation Authority Board on Thursday, Dec. 10 gave a unanimous go-ahead to a plan that would free up more than $8.2 million in RTA funds to build one bridge and two tunnels for animals to use while traveling between the Santa Catalina and Tortolita mountain ranges.

The 2006 voter-approved transportation plan totals $2 billion to be spent over the next 20 years. The plan sets aside more than $40 million for animal crossing structures.

"I think this is very significant," said Carolyn Campbell, executive director for The Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection. "This linkage is what this money was specifically dedicated for."

Scientists and conservationists view the mountains as two areas of abundant fauna threatened with isolation as human development spreads.

The Arizona Department of Transportation has given the project its blessing, as Oracle Road is a state highway under the purview of the state agency.

The town of Oro Valley also has approved the plan. Both tunnels proposed in the plan would connect wild areas of the Catalinas with desert tracts and washes that run through the town and along its edges. Ambling creatures often use washes and dry riverbeds as pathways between habitat areas.

Oracle Road, also called State Highway 77, has been undergoing extensive widening projects for the past few years, with more improvements planned. The state intends to start work on a stretch of Oracle north of Oro Valley sometime in 2013.

Work on the bridge and tunnels would coincide with the roadwork. The bridge specifically for wildlife would be the first of its kind in Southern Arizona.

Pima County also has worked to ensure the success of the bridge, a possible 90-foot long, 20-foot tall structure.

The proposed location of the bridge, near the 14000 block of North Oracle Road south of Wilds Road, would span the highway, threading the needle between a state-run boys prison and a church on the east side, and the county's Catalina Waste Transfer Station on the west.

The county has made forays into purchasing a pair of private property parcels adjacent to the proposed bridge.

Given the willingness of the owner to sell the 13 acres, on both sides of the highway, and the Pima County Board of Supervisors' approval of using land acquisition money to make the purchase, the land would act as a natural buffer.

The owner of the property, Treehouse Realty, has told the county it wants $92,000 per acre, or about $1.2 million for all 13 acres.

In addition, the county has indicated it would be willing to decommission the solid waste transfer station at the site.

The bridge would connect Catalina State Park with Arroyo Grande, the 9,100-acre section of Arizona State Trust Land that Oro Valley has been in negotiations with for an annexation.

Part of the annexation discussion has been the possible inclusion of a sizable section of natural open space, as much as 68 percent of the total annexation area.

The open space is proposed to include the entire southern section of Arroyo Grande. By design, the open space leads directly to the county-owned Tortolita Mountain Park.

The two proposed tunnels would stretch beneath Oracle Road leading into wild areas on Oro Valley's northeastern edge. Those structures would stand 12 feet tall, up to 50 feet wide and stretch about 190 feet long.

"It's exciting," Campbell said. "I hope it sets a precedent."

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