On Dec. 7, the Coachella Valley Association of Governments announced some news that’s a big deal to anyone who’s been delayed or gotten stuck in traffic because of the closure of Indian Canyon Drive at the Whitewater Wash.

CVAG said it was getting $50 million from the California Transportation Commission, to pay for two-thirds of an estimated $75 million project, including the building of two pre-fabricated bridges on Indian Canyon; the installation of two miles of sand fencing; and the construction of a two-mile pathway with an overhead solar panel-shade structure (for pedestrians and bike-riders).

Once completed, the project should end the frequent weather-related closures of Indian Canyon Drive, a critical route that links the city of Palm Springs, including Desert Regional Medical Center—the location of the only Level 1 trauma center in the valley—to Interstate 10 and communities like Whitewater and Desert Hot Springs.

That’s the good news. The bad: Construction won’t start until 2025 or 2026. The same goes for the long-promised bridge on Vista Chino, and the widening of the bridge over the Whitewater Wash on Ramon Road.

Nonetheless, the $50 million award from the California Transportation Commission is a big deal, CVAG executive director Tom Kirk explained during a recent interview.

“There was only $300 million available statewide (in 2023), and the little Coachella Valley Association of Governments got one-sixth of all the dollars available in the entire state,” Kirk said. “That was the maximum amount, and we were one of the top two ranked projects, so it was a big deal. … We were up against the big guys in Los Angeles and the Bay Area who are getting big dollars for subways and trains. It feels good to be at the top of this heap.”

Lisa Middleton, a Palm Springs City Council member who is running for the new State Senate District 19 seat, said a lot of preparation went into the successful effort to get the $50 million state grant.

“Earlier in 2023, CVAG identified funding that was going to be awarded by the California Transportation Commission. … It originated out of federal funding that was a part of the Inflation Reduction Act,” Middleton told the Independent during a recent interview. “We got our application (submitted) in early summer of 2023—and then Tropical Storm Hilary approached. On Sunday morning before the storm hit, we had a visit from Gov. (Gavin) Newsom to inspect the preparations that we had done here in Palm Springs for the storm. In the course of that meeting with the governor, I personally looked at him and said, ‘Indian Canyon is going to flood out. It’s going to flood out very badly, and I don’t know how long it’s going to take for us to fix it—but there’s a $50 million application sitting in the California Department of Transportation that could provide the funding for the bridges that are needed.’ … Obviously we did not get any commitment at all from him at that time, but we were not going to let him get out of the room without him knowing that our application was there.”

That was just one piece of a months-long public-relations effort aimed at winning the support of public officials at the federal, state and local levels.

“We put together a good package,” Middleton said, “and we had myself, other members of the City Council from Palm Springs and (Desert Hot Springs) Mayor Scott Matas holding multiple press conferences on the issues. Tom Kirk and his people did great staff work in getting us prepared. We met with Congressman (Ken) Calvert, and we met with Congressman (Raul) Ruiz. If anybody would sit down and listen to us, we would talk.”

Just 15 days after the award was announced, a rainstorm that meteorologists had predicted to be insignificant served as a stark reminder of the need for these bridge projects: The Dec. 22 rain closed Indian Canyon overnight and well into the next day, with Gene Autry Trail and Vista Chino also closing—and Coachella Valley residents face several more years of these closures, at the least.

“The key is to get to be construction-ready. Once you’ve done that, you’re usually home free. That’s where we expect to be in year two.

CVAG executive director tom kirk

The reality is that numerous steps need to be taken before construction can begin, including environmental studies, dealing with right-of-way matters, and design and engineering work. Then a construction company can be selected and, ultimately, ground can be broken.

“The key is to get to be construction-ready,” Kirk said. “Once you’ve done that, you’re usually home free. That’s where we expect to be in year two. I wouldn’t expect to be in construction for another two or three years. There’s a lot of environmental work, soils work, design work, permitting—it’s a complicated project, as you can probably imagine.”

However, the process has started: Kirk said CVAG has hired Michael Baker International, an engineering company which is doing preliminary work.

“They’re making sure that all of the existing right-of-way property we have is sufficient to do any configuration we want, and they’re exploring different options for bridge and structure design,” Kirk said. “That’s the first step, and it’s under way.”

While Indian Canyon Drive may be the most crucial often-closed thoroughfare, it’s not the only one. When we spoke to Middleton in early 2023, she confirmed that two projects—a bridge over the wash on Vista Chino, and a widening of the bridge on Ramon Road—were already funded.

As for a bridge on Gene Autry Trail?

“That’s next (in terms of finding funding),” Middleton said. “We need them both. We’ve already begun our conversations on that. But we’ve been very clear that, because of the proximity of Desert Regional hospital, Indian Canyon was the first priority. I think we made the right decision in … going after that funding immediately and separately from Gene Autry.”

While nearly a year has passed since Middleton told the Independent that the Vista Chino and Ramon Road bridge projects had been funded, construction won’t be starting anytime soon.

Joel Montalvo, Palm Springs’ city engineer, said via email that the Ramon Road bridge-widening project is estimated to start construction in mid-to-late 2025, with a possible two-year construction schedule. The right-of-way phase has been completed, he said, and the final design work is under way.

Montalvo said that construction on the Vista Chino bridge over the Whitewater Wash is estimated to begin in late 2026, with a possible three-year construction schedule. The right-of-way assessment phase is just starting, he said.

While these slow timelines may frustrate locals, Kirk focused on the positive step that the $50 million award represents.

“We were elated and proud and excited (when our bridge proposal was approved),” he said. “Although it doesn’t mean the bridge is built or the problem is fixed, it sure helps a lot—by the tune of $50 million. It was a big deal and a big success for the Coachella Valley, a big success for Palm Springs, and a big success for a lot of commuters in Desert Hot Springs, too.”

Said Middleton: “We understand the kind of inconveniences that people have gone through, and we appreciate the patience that people have had. Now it’s time to get these bridges built.”

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