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29 May 2013

On the Path? Proposed Whitewater River Parkway Faces Numerous Challenges Before It Becomes a Reality

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An artists' rendering of the pathway as it passes over Fred Waring Drive. An artists' rendering of the pathway as it passes over Fred Waring Drive. http://www.cvag.org/Parkway_1e11_english.htm

Initial steps toward building an alternative-transportation corridor for valley residents are being taken—without specifics on a potentially costly variable.

The Coachella Valley Association of Governments, the organization spearheading efforts to construct the Whitewater River Parkway, has secured grants from various sources worth as much as $49.4 million, according to Mike Shoberg, CVAG transportation program manager.

An exact accounting isn't possible, Shoberg said, because the Desert Healthcare District has pledged "up to $10 million." The tally includes a $17.4 million contribution from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which was charged with doling out $53 million in pollution-mitigation fees stemming from the construction of the Sentinel power plant near Desert Hot Springs.

The project, also known as the Parkway 1e11, is envisioned as a 52-mile paved path for pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers of small, low-speed electric vehicles. It would wind its way through nine cities, from Desert Hot Springs and Palm Springs in the west, to Coachella in the east.

Last year, CVAG issued a preliminary report on the parkway, with critics attacking several aspects of its proposed benefits as overly optimistic. The report found no insurmountable obstacles to the parkway's construction.

Since then, engineers have been prepping master plans and analyzing the parkway's potential course.

"We're in the design phase right now, basically," Shoberg said.

The biggest question mark hanging over the project, which CVAG estimates will cost approximately $77 million, is how easily and at what price rights of way can be negotiated with the many landowners impacted by its construction. Indeed, last year's preliminary report noted the "complicated land ownership, lease and easement arrangements" posed by the parkway's path, and budgeted some $8.48 million for land acquisitions.

"I've not had the opportunity to review CVAG's estimated cost analysis on this particular component, but, yes, theoretically it could cost more, and only very rarely will it cost less," wrote Gretchen Gutierrez, chief executive officer of the Desert Valley Builders Association, in an email. "The variable is the number of landowners (her emphasis) that would be willing to sell/donate or by some other means have CVAG acquire the necessary parcels so that it is a continuous land mass along the trail plan."

Any landowners who are unable to be located or are holdouts would likely inflate costs, according to Gutierrez.

"If that number of landowners is large, and I suspect it may be given the size and acreage of the overall trail, then, yes, there will be extensive negotiations involved during the entire process of development," she wrote.

CVAG Executive Director Tom Kirk wouldn't comment on land-acquisition specifics, saying they're not in that phase of the plan yet—and probably won't be until well into next year.

"Engineers are doing an extensive review of every square inch to understand ownership issues," Kirk said.

But Kirk did address another issue relating to rights of way: The fact that the trail would cut into tribal lands, adding another layer of complexity to negotiations.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, these lands are held in trust by the federal government, and any agreement on rights of way must be approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The department's website advises those wishing to obtain rights of way for transportation projects to allow sufficient time for requests to work their way through bureaucracy.

"Negotiations for right of way over tribal lands have become increasingly complex and often include issues not directly related to the acquisition process itself," the department's website reads. "As a result, some state departments of transportation have encountered increased difficulty in completing the acquisition of right-of-way easements over Native American lands in a timely manner."

According to Kirk, the problems posed by acquiring tribal land were more of "a time-related complication" than a "cost-related" one.

But surely time is money—especially when it comes to transportation projects.

"Time is money—that said, the project is a 52-mile project, and we're not going to construct it in one day," he added. "It'll be done in phases."

Kirk said a small percentage of the parkway would cross tribal lands, and that most—if not all—of that land belongs to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, a CVAG member.

"We've enjoyed a long and positive relationship with them," he said.

A representative of the Agua Caliente tribe, who was away in Washington, D.C., didn't respond to a request for comment.

One more issue with potential monetary implications also relates to safety. At least one critic has asserted that the parkway's course would expose golfing communities—some of which have fairways extending into the Whitewater riverbed—to theft. Kirk said he didn't expect the path to force closed communities to open up.

"There are legitimate concerns about public safety," he said, "and we'll have to address that during the design process."

Kirk said parkway users’ watchful eyes would discourage crime, adding that it was more likely for someone to drive into a community for the purposes of stealing than to scale a wall.

"Putting a 55-inch HDTV into your knapsack and riding away with it on a path is not as practical as driving away with it," he said.

Last year's CVAG report stated that "enforcement of parkway rules will be important for user safety," which Kirk emphasized was oriented more toward enforcing traffic violations than other public-safety concerns.

"Rangers would likely be required to police the over 50 miles or proposed parkway," the report continued.

That may add to the woes of the federal Bureau of Land Management—the agency law-enforcement rangers work for—which has already been stretched thin from budget cuts.

"There are never enough rangers to cover approximately 11 million acres of public land in the Southern California desert," wrote Stephen Razo, director of external affairs for the BLM California Desert District, in an email. Still, Razo added, law enforcement is given a "high priority" when it comes to staffing.

For his part, Kirk again emphasized the importance of eagle-eyed residents packing cell phones.

"I sure hope, frankly, that's not necessary," he said about ranger patrols. "Most trails don't have dedicated rangers—they rely more on a thousand people out there with phones. The more eyes you have in the community, the better."

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