Rain poured across the Coachella Valley on Jan. 10, causing all-too-familiar road closures. Indian Canyon Drive, Gene Autry Drive and Vista Chino were closed in Palm Springs, as was Dune Palms Road in La Quinta.
The result: traffic gridlock.
Less than a week later, on Jan. 15-16, it happened all over again, leaving residents asking the same question they’ve been asking whenever it rains for years: When will something be done about these road closures?
Tom Kirk is the executive director of the Coachella Valley Association of Governments, an organization which has been working to fix these issues, with some successes, such as the Ofelia Bringas Memorial Bridge project, completed last October on Cathedral Canyon Drive in Cathedral City. Work also just started on the Dune Palms Road bridge in La Quinta.
However, as the January storms reminded everyone, more needs to be done.
“When you look at the bridge projects, while they might sit in one city, they are used by residents and tourists and everybody else from throughout the Coachella Valley,” Kirk said during a recent interview. “And when we look at the Coachella Valley as a market area or a community, we (at CVAG) try to dissolve some of the jurisdictional lines. For CVAG, and much of what we do, it doesn’t matter whether a project is meant for another (community) as long as it’s used by many. The projects in Palm Springs, in particular, will probably be used by more non-Palm Springs residents than they are by Palm Springs residents. It’s important to the region to get people in and out of Palm Springs, or in and out of Cathedral City, or in and out of La Quinta.
“For (people) who come from places where bridges actually span water, our bridges may seem peculiar and, perhaps, expensive, when you think about the fact that there isn’t water underneath them. For those of us who have been around the Coachella Valley awhile, we know that 99.9% of the time, there isn’t any water underneath—but when there is, there tends to be a lot of it. It’s dangerous, and it can really disrupt our economy, and it can disrupt our communities, and potentially create a significant threat to lives. So bridges are important … and making those crossings strong and able to hold up to all sorts of emergencies is really important.”
This flash-flooding threat has plagued the eight valley cities located south of Interstate 10 for decades. It’s been that way since the Whitewater Wash was formalized by the Coachella Valley Water District back in the 1970s to serve as a conduit for water flows resulting from rainfall on the valley floor—flows often supplemented by runoff from the surrounding mountain ranges. The idea was to develop a natural geographic feature in the valley that would facilitate drainage into a low elevation area, promoting water flow from west to east.
According to the original water-management planning, each individual city is responsible for creating their own infrastructure to facilitate this water flow to the Salton Sea. Although officials in the eight cities have known for decades that any roads or structures built within the wash areas would be closed during flash flooding, little has been done to solve that problem.
Back on Valentine’s Day 2019, a major flooding event occurred that many residents thought would spur local governments into action. However, outside of the aforementioned Cathedral City and La Quinta bridge projects, little physical progress has been made since then. The projects in Palm Springs, in particular, have been stymied because of the tremendous costs of proposed bridges—and the inability to attract the massive funding required.
This past January, City Councilmember Lisa Middleton announced she is spearheading an all-out effort to bridge the flooding trouble spots in Palm Springs. She said two bridge projects—a bridge over the wash on Vista Chino, and a widening of the bridge on Ramon Road—are already funded.
During the two January City Council meetings, she detailed revised plans for the two other bridges that are needed—one on Indian Canyon Drive, and one on Gene Autry Drive.
“What we were looking at (in the past) were two bridge projects, both of which follow traditional bridge architecture,” Middleton said at the Jan. 12 meeting. “And the estimates that we (received) approached $300 million per bridge. … Looking back at previous federal administrations, there was very little hope that we were going to get the funding that we needed. So, CVAG’s executive transportation committee authorized a technical study to identify alternatives we could do to successfully bridge these important arterials. What was reported back to us was a proposed project across Indian Canyon—which is the most critical of the bridges, because that is the primary route used by ambulances coming from anywhere north of the freeway to get to the Desert Regional Medical Center.”
Middleton said the study identified a prefabricated bridge that could work on Indian Canyon. Including upgrades at what she identified as “important pinch points on Varner Road and on Date Palm,” the proposed project could be completed in two years for about $50 million.
“To solve both Indian Canyon and Gene Autry, we’re looking at something closer to $80-$90 million,” Middleton told the council audience. “But that, compared to the $700 million estimates we were looking at for traditional bridges, is an incredible improvement.”
Middleton said at that meeting that Kirk sent Gov. Gavin Newsom a letter last October requesting $5 million for design and environmental work. “That letter is on the governor’s desk, and we’re hopeful that we’ll get the support of the governor,” she said. “We know that because of the catastrophic damage that has occurred throughout California because of the recent storms, the competition for funding is going to be intense, and we’re going to do everything that we can … to make sure we get the funding that we need for these projects here in our community.”
Kirk explained the usual funding formula for projects of this type.
“The federal government tends to pick up about 89% of the cost of the budget,” Kirk told the Independent. (That money is often funneled through the state.) “CVAG picks up 75% of the remainder (or about 8.25% of a total project budget), and the local city picks up 25% (or about 2.75% of the total project budget). But because the cities end up doing a lot of the legwork and the engineering design, they pay a lot more for a longer period of time, and sometimes up-front the money, which is what La Quinta is doing now with the Dune Palms Bridge, because they can’t get their (Highway Bridge Program) funding just yet.”
How are the CVAG funds committed to these projects generated?
“From you (the taxpayer), in part,” Kirk said. “Every time you buy something, you pay a little sales tax, and a little bit of that sales tax goes to transportation projects in Riverside County. Some of that makes its way to CVAG, and we use that to fund regional priorities—and bridges certainly are one of those.”
During a recent interview with Middleton, she explained her plan for obtaining the tens of millions of dollars in funding required to bridge the flood zones.
“I was in the governor’s office (recently) on other issues,” Middleton said. “When the meeting was over, it gave me an opportunity to pull aside the governor’s chief adviser on legislative issues and give her a copy of the same presentation that we gave to Mayor Villaraigosa.”
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is Newsom’s infrastructure adviser.
“Also, that same week, I had introductory conversations with state Sen. Kelly Seyarto, who represents part of Riverside County and who—for the next couple of years, until we have an elected State Senate representative again—will act as a point person for our issues. Also, I met with Assemblymember (Greg) Wallis and State Sen. (Steve) Padilla, who is out of Chula Vista, but his district wraps around to include parts of Desert Hot Springs, right on the border where these (flood-prone) areas are.”
Middleton said she’s also reaching out to both Coachella Valley congressmen, Dr. Raul Ruiz and Ken Calvert. The goal is to make sure these projects are on everyone’s radar—and at the state level, there’s some urgency.
“The Legislature has to approve a budget by June 15, and now is that time when everybody is making sure that we’re getting our issues front and center with the legislators for the big fight that will go on this spring over who’s going to get what,” she said.
Middleton said the bridge projects slated for Ramon Road and Vista Chino are already fully funded.
“The projected budget for the Vista Chino bridge, which is in design work, is about $95 million,” Middleton said. “That money has been allocated, and we have that. Also, we have the allocation for the money for the Ramon bridge widening. It will take that to a full three lanes in each direction across Ramon. That will significantly decrease the Ramon pinch-points that we have.”
This is all good news—but Coachella Valley residents know all too well that it’s not just rain that can close down some of these roads. Far more often, Vista Chino, Gene Autry Trail and Indian Canyon Drive are closed by wind-blown sandstorms. We asked Kirk if these proposed bridge products would prevent all of these wind-caused closures as well.
“I doubt it,” he said. “Just to be frank with you, the bridges will solve sand closures to some extent. The bridge locations on Indian Canyon and Gene Autry are in the same location where we get major sand flows. … Where the sand drifts frequently is exactly where the riverbed is, because it gets deposited there relatively frequently, and it moves—so the locations where we get water flow are the same locations where we get a lot of sand movement as well. Having a bridge over those areas is certainly going to make it less likely to have a closure, but it’s not going to eliminate them completely.”
While wind-related closures may be an ongoing issue, Kirk said these bridge projects would solve “99.9% of flooding problems.”
“We do have flooding that occurs on Cook Street, which is a low-water crossing, and on Fred Waring Drive where it crosses the Whitewater River wash. Both of those structures were designed as what they call low-water crossings—the bridge is relatively low over the riverbed, and it will handle most flows. But sometimes, it gets over-topped … so we’ll have a little flooding here and there—but nothing like what has now become a pretty regular occurrence in those Palm Springs and La Quinta areas.”
The first bridges that need to be built should be the ones that go into desert hot springs. At least one needs to be built. We end up stuck in desert hot springs because the only way out becomes too flooded to drive across
Has anyone contacted Cathedral City regarding Varner Road (between Palm Drive. and Bob Hope) and the section of Mountain View that is in their city limits? When these roads were in Riverside County they were fairly well taken care of. When Cathedral City annexed this area road maintenance was reduced to practically zero.
There is one section of Varner between Date Palm and Edom HIll Road to the dump that was completely repaved, perhaps 10 years ago. My understanding was that this was partially funded by Burrtec as it was their trash trucks that caused the majority of the wear and tear.
Varner is a main thoroughfare in and out of Desert Hot Springs and the Edom Hill transfer station.
I have sent one letter to Cathedral City that has, so far, been ignored.
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