Talk of bridges to prevent closure of roadways that pass through the Whitewater Wash is nearly as old as the city itself. But after decades of frustration for motorists, there may be a glimmer of hope.
As yet another traffic nightmare played out on city streets Thursday evening following flooding in the wash this week that forced closure of three major roadways, Palm Springs City Councilmember Lisa Middleton was delivering remarks that should bolster spirits. They could also be met with a healthy dose of skepticism.
“We had gone decades without getting federal funding that is needed for those types of bridges,” Middleton said. “There was very little hope during previous administrations.” But following massive flooding in February 2019, she explained, elected leaders throughout the Coachella Valley decided to try a different approach — think small.
Where traditional bridge projects can span miles and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the city — working with the Coachella Valley Association of Governments (CVAG) — hopes to see smaller bridges built closer to the surface that cost only tens of millions to complete.
The most critical need is along North Indian Canyon Drive, which is closed more often than nearby Vista Chino and Gene Autry Trail. Any closure causes not just longer commute times, but increases the time needed for ambulances transporting patients from north of Interstate 10 to Desert Regional Medical Center in the city.
“Those are matters of life and death,” Middleton said after earlier pointing out that “These are significant arterials that have cascading effects throughout the Coachella Valley, and we certainly saw that this week.”
What’s being planned for North Indian Canyon is a prefabricated bridge that can stretch across the area most prone to flooding. A technical study has already been completed, and officials are hard at work raising the $50 million needed to complete the project. They have a request in to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office for $5 million that can pay for design work.
There is stiff competition for infrastructure money, especially in a state often dealing with disasters. But if all goes well, the hope is that a solution can be in place within two years.
“With Gene Autry and Indian Canyon we have severe restrictions on what we can do because it’s critical habitat for the Casey’s June beetle,” said Middleton. “That doesn’t mean we can’t do anything, and we are working on it. Our efforts have been valley wide and have the support of all cities through CVAG.”
The closure of one road across the wash that leads to and from I-10 is annoying, and occurs roughly two dozen days a year. The closure of all three — which occurred this week but is rarer — can be maddening.
“I drive into Palm Springs every day to drop off my son at school at Katherine Finchy and to go to the (office) in downtown Palm Springs,” one motorist who emailed The Post to express her frustrations wrote on Wednesday. “Most days it is a really beautiful 20-minute commute. Yesterday it took me two hours and five minutes to get from my son’s after-school program at the Community Center to our home (in Desert Hot Springs).
“We tried to drive out east through Vista Chino but they just closed that as well. It was a total mess with not enough police directing traffic or informing drivers at the intersection of Gene Autry and Vista Chino that Vista Chino was closed at the wash.”
Vista Chino may be where progress is made quickest, according to Middleton. There, a prefabricated bridge is already halfway through the design phase.
While the community continues to wait for solutions that will stop road closures at the wash, Middleton said more can be done to roads that don’t close during flooding. Palm Springs police and roadway engineers continue to explore ways to move traffic faster through the city, she said, but there are efforts the state can make as well.
“Many individuals coming from the north are using Tipton Road as an alternative,” Middleton said, referring to a road off Highway 111 near the junction with I-10. “That left turn to southbound 111 is a very dangerous turn that people have to make. … I met personally with the Caltrans district director to talk specifically about Tipton Road and the dangers. It falls under Caltrans responsibility. They are assigning teams to look at making it safer when we have to close the roads through the wash.”