New momentum, federal support has commuter rail between valley, Los Angeles on track

This week, representatives from local governments are meeting with elected officials and others in Washington, D.C. The goal? Build on recent support to see commuter rail finally come to the Coachella Valley.
Limited passenger rail service is currently available at the Palm Springs Amtrak station, but there’s an ambitious plan to change that.

Passenger rail service between Palm Springs and other parts of the Coachella Valley and downtown Los Angeles may seem like wishful thinking, but an ambitious plan to provide just that is picking up steam.

This week, representatives of some of the multiple local governments backing the Coachella Valley-San Gorgonio Pass Rail Corridor Service Project are scheduled to meet with elected officials and others in Washington, D.C. It’s the latest move forward for the project first envisioned in 1991.

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The timing couldn’t be better.

“There’s a huge push with the federal infrastructure bill, and in it, there’s a lot of investment for inter-city rail, which is what this project is,” said Aaron Hake, deputy executive director of the Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC). “We want to ensure this new corridor is a part of the national conversation.”

Indio Mayor Waymond Fermon and Riverside County Supervisor Karen Spiegel, who serve on the RCTC with nearly three dozen others (including Palm Springs Mayor Lisa Middleton), plan to sit down with representatives Raul Ruiz and Ken Calvert, as well as U.S. Department of Transportation Deputy Assistant Secretary Andrew Wishnia, to discuss how to keep the project top of mind in the nation’s capital.

As currently envisioned, passengers of the rail service would be able to travel between Los Angeles and the valley, stopping at nine stations along a 144-mile route. An existing Palm Springs station could be joined by up to three new stations in the desert, including a Coachella terminus. Additional rail lines would also be needed, Hake said, in order to avoid interfering with freight transportation.

The total cost of the project is estimated to be close to $1 billion dollars. But Palm Desert Mayor Jan Harnik, who also serves on the RCTC, cautions that should be put into perspective. Those who see the price as a sticking point should consider what we’re currently paying for transportation infrastructure, she said, adding that passenger rail construction will be coming and that not acting now will only result in increased costs later.

 “When you talk about that kind of money, a billion dollars sounds scary to people,” said Harnik. “But this is a tremendous project. Most people don’t think about the fact that all we are usually doing is just widening our freeways and adding more lanes. It’s terrible land use.”

Harnik is also quick to point to other benefits. The rail line is predicted to alleviate more than 107,000 vehicle trips per year – resulting in a reduction of 858,380 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. When you reduce vehicle trips and miles traveled, she said, there’s less need for road repairs and less money spent on car repairs. There’s also an increase in safety.

“We can’t afford not to do it,” said Harnik, “It’s an investment in our community and in our environment and we call benefit from it.”

Where, exactly, the additional Coachella Valley stations would be located is being discussed at the city level. Last week, the Palm Desert City Council voted unanimously to solicit proposals for a feasibility study, hoping to host the mid-valley station somewhere along the Cook Street interchange. Locating it there, city staff said, would provide access to the Cal State campus and Acrisure Arena.

A map of the possible passenger rail service route between the Coachella Valley and Los Angeles, as seen on the Riverside County Transportation Commission’s website.

“We are being proactive and looking into things that will make the decision easy for RCTC,” said Eric Ceja, Palm Desert’s director of economic development.

If and when a more viable passenger rail service arrives in the Coachella Valley, the most obvious benefit might be that it finally gives residents traveling west a viable alternative to cars. The current fastest way to travel between the valley and Los Angeles County is via Interstate 10 in an automobile or on a bus. When the freeway is shut down because of an accident or due to construction, it adds hours to the trip.

“It would be transformative,” said Harnik. She visualizes hopping on the train in Palm Desert for a meeting in Los Angeles and heading back home in time for dinner – a trip she recently made, but that required first driving to San Bernardino.

Perhaps nobody would have a more transformative experience than those who don’t own motor vehicles. For them, transportation options shrink to catching a bus, walking, or cycling. With this new rail corridor, jobs or education that seemed unattainable because of how long it would take to commute are now within reach, resulting in a boon for the economy. 

“We have to connect our entire valley to opportunity,” Harnik emphasized.

Improved rail also works in reverse. The Coachella Valley’s vast tourism ecosystem would be opened to people from the Inland Empire and Los Angeles who otherwise might not want to take a day trip because of the daunting traffic. Currently, people making day trips are more than half of the visitation to the Greater Palm Springs area.

“We have to connect our entire valley to opportunity.”

— Palm Desert Mayor Jan Harnik

So, will the dream become a reality? Harnik and Hake both agree that there is a renewed sense of urgency to keep the project on track. It passed a significant milestone in July with the adoption of a Tier 1 environmental impact report (EIR). Next up is a Tier 2 EIR, which zooms in on the project and looks at more site-specific issues.

“Things really took off in 2016 when we applied for a grant for the Tier 1 EIR, which we just completed,” Hake explained. “The CEO and executives from Amtrak actually called the RCTC and wanted to have a meeting a few weeks ago. They’re so enthusiastic and supportive of what we’re doing.”

Part of that enthusiasm is due to the fact that our region is one of the key corridors Amtrak listed as one of its priorities for its Corridor Vision plan. In a perfect world, Coachella Valley rail would connect to Las Vegas and Phoenix.

When representatives from the RCTC told Amtrak the Tier 2 EIR could be a few years away, Harnik said they pushed for an accelerated timeline. That was part of the motivation for this week’s trip to D.C.

“We want an expedited review and the cutting of some red tape to get this done,” Hake said. “We know how transformational this will be, and we think the federal government would want to move quickly to get this done. This has more traction than it has ever had.”

Added Harnik: “We have never seen the momentum we have now.” 

But while elected and appointed officials in government may feel that momentum, many taxpayers do not. The RCTC has received copious feedback about how long progress is taking and other issues surrounding what would be a monumental change in people travel.

Members of the Riverside County Transportation Commission, including Palm Springs Mayor Lisa Middle (in red), and Palm Desert Mayor Jan Harnik (to the left of Middleton) pose for an image outside an Amtrak booth.

“Some people think it’s something that’s so far off, but it’s really not,” said Hake. And even though the project fell out of the public eyes for years, the RCTC was still hard at work behind the scenes coordinating with a dizzying amount of state, county, federal, and private entities. 

“We’ve been working on it this whole time,” Harnik explained, adding that officials are aware that rail won’t be a one-size-fits-all fix for transportation problems in the valley. For that reason, she said, it isn’t being considered in a vacuum.

 “We have to consider all these things,” she said, “like how are people going to get to the station if they don’t have a car? What about light rail, trolleys, and shuttles through different valley cities?”

Those types of considerations may have been ushered in during the pandemic. The tide turned ever so slightly against infrastructure dominated by private vehicles as cities closed off major roads and brought dining parklets into the street.  It was a moment in time where people could enjoy quieter and safer streets and envision their cities looking like that in the future. 

Cities like SyracuseDetroit, and Seoul are slowly removing busy highways and replacing them with public spaces and more people-friendly design, providing a glimpse into the future here. Palm Desert’s San Pablo road diet, Indio’s Highway 111 Specific Plan, and the valley-wide CV Link bike path prove that local government is rethinking transportation design. 

Even political opponents may be coming on board. Even though Hake and others are hesitant to offer a timeline for completion of the Coachella Valley rail plan, they are optimistic it will happen, even if “Amtrak Joe” Biden is no longer in The White House.

 “Different administrations can come and go, and Congress can change hands,” Hake said. “But because (the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) commits the federal government to that level of investment for a long time, the next several years are already on a set course.”

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