CV Link Champions a Healthier Route Across the Coachella Valley – Palm Springs Life

CV Link Champions a Healthier Route Across the Coachella Valley  Palm Springs Life

Tom Kirk says CV Link will bring to life many parts of the valley.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY LANCE GERBER

If you’ve ever been on Pinterest or Instagram, you know the seemingly endless platitudes about paths: If the path is beautiful, don’t ask where it leads. Go where there is no path and leave a trail. There are paths to success, unexpected paths, the right path. The hashtag #path alone has been used more than 3.4 million times on Instagram. So when an idea hatched to build a 40-mile path through the Coachella Valley (CV Link) — connecting most desert cities as an alternative transportation route and recreational trail — it shouldn’t come as any surprise that this notion became an obsession, drawing passionate fans and grassroots supporters while also becoming a lightning rod for criticism.

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This is how it happened.

The Starting Line

Tom Kirk is the executive director of the Coachella Valley Association of Governments (CVAG), a regional planning agency that coordinates government services across the Coachella Valley. He’s also the driving force behind the CV Link. And he would like to tell you an emotional story about his personal connection to bike paths and how that motivates this work, but he can’t.

“Part of me wishes I could say my young son is in a wheelchair and I could shed some tears,” he says. “But there’s none of that.”

So where did this idea come from?

First, you should know that Kirk, who has lived in the Coachella Valley for about 22 years, has a background in regional planning and transportation engineering, working as a consultant for private developers and government agencies. When he came to this area, it was for a role at CVAG. He followed that with a few years at the helm of the Salton Sea Authority. About 10 years ago, Kirk returned to CVAG to run the organization.

Then came the intersection of intentional planning and serendipity.

Kay Hazen, who serves on the Desert Healthcare District board, asked Kirk if he knew anything about a trail plan for the Coachella Valley. At that time — around 2009 — the district had been investing a fair amount of money to address childhood obesity. Perhaps the healthcare district could really sink its teeth into a regional bike plan?

“They sponsored programs in local schools,” Kirk says. “But they never made a major investment in facilities to get people off of their butts, into their sneakers, and out into the streets.”

Kirk’s research led him to a project from the Desert Recreation District, which included a study of potential bike trails through the Coachella Valley. One plan involved the All American Canal of Coachella; another ran along Dillon Road. A third plan, then called the Whitewater River Trail, seemed the most promising.

“What we needed was a true artery to bring life into all parts of the valley,” Kirk says.

The Sentinel Energy Project, a plan for a natural gas power plant to be built in an unincorporated area near Desert Hot Springs, was simultaneously happening. An assembly bill allowed for the power plant to be approved as long as the environmental impacts were mitigated with a $53 million fund.

That money could have been used anywhere within the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s boundaries, which stretch as far as Los Angeles and Orange counties, as well as San Bernardino and Riverside. Kirk and other local leaders were determined to keep the money here.

When the funds were approved to stay in the Coachella Valley, the next question was: How should they be used?

“My contribution to that was to say we’ve got a project called the Whitewater River bike trail,” Kirk recalls. “Perhaps it could be even more than a bike trail.”

The valleywide pathway will enhance public health, safety, and mobility and stimulate economic activity, according to an independent health impact assessment.

Gaining Traction

When the Whitewater River Trail was envisioned, the plan was for sections of asphalt that would be pieced together over decades, eventually forming a bike trail. But Kirk’s vision was bigger and more ambitious, essentially supersizing the notion of the bike path and making it more appealing for pedestrians and accessible to small electric vehicles, like golf carts.

One night at the CVAG office, Kirk held a mini conference with Hazen, then–Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, and a six-pack of beer.

“By the time we left, we took this idea of a relatively narrow asphalt bike path,” Kirk says, “and were on our way toward building a project that could appeal to a wide cross-section of our population and visitors.”

CVAG had already been examining the capacity constraints along Highway 111. There were also growing concerns about the number of bike and pedestrian accidents.

Gary Lueders of Rancho Mirage was among the early champions for a safe road alternative in the Coachella Valley. In 2006, he was president of the Desert Bicycle Club and became involved with a grassroots effort for a bike path, an advocacy group that morphed into Friends of the CV Link.

“I’ve been cycling since the 1970s, and I’ve seen it change over the years.” Lueders says. “Cars are getting more frantic. There are more distracted drivers.”

What motivated Lueders to take action was the 2007 death of Kim Raney, a 26-year-old cyclist from Seattle who was killed on Highway 111 while vacationing in Palm Springs.

“That really got my attention,” Lueders says, choking up as he speaks. “It shouldn’t be that way.”

The goal with the new multi-use trail is “treating the users on that path as a priority,” Kirk says. “Given how many bike and pedestrian accidents were happening, we thought it was a high priority to get the bikers and pedestrians off the streets.”

In 2013, there were 17 pedestrians killed by collisions with vehicles in the Coachella Valley. That increased to 19 pedestrian fatalities in 2018, which is consistent with a rise in such deaths across California.

Supervisor Benoit became a strong proponent of the expanded idea, then called Parkway 1e11, now CV Link. (Benoit didn’t live to see the project come to fruition. He died in December 2016 from pancreatic cancer.)

“Hundreds of pedestrians and cyclists have been injured or killed while trying to navigate the valley’s busy roadways,” Benoit wrote in his message for the 2016 Coachella Valley Blueprint for Action. “CV Link will provide a safe, free route through our community and connect them to jobs, schools, and public parks.”

Initially, CVAG received enthusiastic support from all the desert cities.

“This notion of a trail down the Whitewater River has been around for a long time, so that part wasn’t new,” Kirk says. “What was new was our commitment to get it done quickly, and to get the funding and make the project happen. Certainly, we didn’t expect the kinds of challenges that we’ve ended up with, nor did I expect to secure $100 million as quickly as we did.”

Here’s where the money came from: CVAG was awarded $17.4 million from the emission mitigation fund. CVAG committed $20 million of regional transportation funding to build the project, and about $20.7 came from the State Active Transportation Program. Kirk also got a commitment of $10 million from Desert Healthcare District and secured $12.6 million from Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds. Additional money came from the California Strategic Growth Council ($1 million), Riverside County Parks ($750,000), a Bicycle Transportation Account Grant ($748,500, which was secured with Cathedral City), and a Caltrans Environmental Justice Grant ($291,000, secured with Palm Desert).

The CV Link Conceptual Master Plan, developed based on feedback from the community and input from healthcare organizations, businesses, environmental groups, and the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, was approved in February 2016.

Wheels Up

The funny thing about Kirk is that he’s not a cyclist, even though he has enough lean muscle to look the part. One side of his desk at CVAG is stacked with Pure Protein nutrition bars. On the other side, a pink Himalayan salt lamp.

“Most people assume that I’m a biker, and I’m not. I can’t stand the thought of getting on a bike and riding 100 miles. It would be really boring to me,” he says. “So that’s not where CV Link came from.”

Kirk is, however, a guy who plays soccer, basketball, and sand volleyball with his kids and his friends. He snowboards and hikes. When he served on the La Quinta City Council, he often rode his skateboard to the council meetings.

“I believe in an active lifestyle. I certainly encourage that with my family, and I believe it’s important for our society,” he says. “That keeps me going.”

In a 2015 special report funded by the Desert Healthcare District, obesity was highlighted as a top issue for Coachella Valley youth: “Only about 38 percent of children 2 to 10 have a body mass index (BMI) that places them in the healthy range. In contrast, 18 percent are underweight, and 45 percent are overweight or obese.”

CV Link is projected to facilitate more than 3 million bicycle and pedestrian trips per year by 2035, which could have multiple benefits on the 175,000 people who live within 1.5 miles of the route. A health impact assessment conducted by Human Impact Partners found that the path increases access to recreation, jobs, and schools; it encourages an increase in physical activity; and it reduces pedestrian and cyclist injuries and fatalities.

The path could also reduce air pollution in the Coachella Valley an estimated 7.5 million pounds a year, though that is a small amount “relative to the total amount of air pollution in the valley,” according to the assessment.

In addition to bettering public health, mobility, and public safety, CV Link would stimulate economic activity.

The Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau hopped on board with support early on, calling it a “game changer” in its 2016 Destination Development Plan: “The proposed CV Link development would help enhance the destination’s outdoor and adventure product in many ways, such as: health and wellness offerings; bike rental docks; [and] events, from traditional running or biking races to those that bring attention to ‘green’ industries which also help tell the destination’s story.”

Kirk believes there has been a fundamental shift in how people vacation, which is why he thinks the CV Link would be such a boon to tourism.

“It used to be when people go on vacation, and certainly when my parents went on vacation, it was a time for rest,” he says. “But when people today go on vacation, it’s a often time for activity. You can work out twice a day, or run, hike, or bike.”

That’s part of the reason why CV Link was designed to light up at night.

“My intent was for people flying into the Palm Springs airport at night to look down and say, ‘What is that?’” Kirk says. “We wanted to dazzle them.”

CV Linked opened its first stretch, between Palm Springs and Cathedral City, in February 2018.

Bumps in the Road

There are thriving bike and pedestrian paths all over the country, including more than 1,200 trails that have opened since 1965 on former railways. The picturesque Bizz Johnson Trail, which runs 25 miles from Susanville to Westwood, California, showcases forested countryside and canyons. The 25-mile Monon in Indianapolis ties together urban neighborhoods and the northern suburbs. And in Ohio, the 78-mile Little Miami Scenic Trail stitches together farmland, nature preserves, and the outskirts of charming small towns.

Trails like these have become sites for special events. They attract walkers, runners, cyclists, skaters, and people with scooters, strollers, and wheelchairs. Small cafés, bike rental shops, and other businesses have popped up alongside them, and they connect people with local attractions.

The difference between those paths and the CV Link is that instead of moving around the edges of a community, CV Link slices directly through the valley — as originally envisioned, that’s 40 miles of right-of-way through eight cities and the lands of two federally recognized tribes. The route is only a short distance from many schools, businesses, gated communities, golf courses, and resorts.

Building a path through these neighborhoods, of course, means the project has its share of detractors. Among them, the city of Rancho Mirage, which opted out of  the CV Link plan.

“Rancho Mirage has never opposed a bike trail in the city of Rancho Mirage. We have always supported the concept of a bike trail,” said then–Mayor Dana Hobart at the beginning of a November 2015 roundtable discussion with city leaders posted on YouTube and the city’s website in which he questioned the trail’s operating and maintenance costs, project funding, and the potential risk to residential security.

About 45 minutes later, Hobart concludes the video, “We have serious problems with the CV Link. We’re not happy with the route projections that they wish to take … We’re not happy with the financial instability, the lack of information and detail with respect to the future operations and maintenance.”

Hobart wasn’t alone. Then–mayor pro tem Ted Weill (now a council member) says he originally supported the CV Link “enthusiastically.”

“Unfortunately, the trite expression of the devil in the details did come out,” he says, “and the details were far different than a bike path or a jogging trail. It morphed into a parkway as a result of the introduction of electric vehicles.”

City councilwoman Iris Smotrich told The Desert Sun in February 2018 that Rancho Mirage residents didn’t want CV Link in their backyard. “Can you imagine homeless encampments on Highway 111? How frightening would that be?” she said to the newspaper.

The city of Indian Wells also rejected the CV Link project and denied a request in June 2019 that would have allowed the city of La Quinta to annex a small portion of land for CV Link at Point Happy, where a mountain runs along the roadway.

The hope was that over time, the cities might soften that stance, although Hobart said that will never happen. “Rancho Mirage residents will never surrender their ability to freely travel in their own business and residential communities,” he said, via email. “Not one other city faced the issue of CV Link traffic in the center of their town. NOT ONE!”

Kirk, however, isn’t daunted. The CV Link will proceed, simply without the inclusion of those cities, which will force bicyclists, walkers, and people on electric vehicles to find alternate routes.

“What surprised me is how politicized CV Link became at the same time that we’re building a
jail, we built a power plant, and most of the projects that you would expect perhaps public outcry about,” Kirk says. “But we’re building a bike path where there’s always been plans for a bike
path, and it becomes the hottest issue at times in some communities?”

Despite two cities putting the brakes on their sections, CV Link in February 2018 opened a 2.3-mile stretch that runs from Vista Chino in Palm Springs to Ramon Road in Cathedral City, followed by a 1-mile portion in Demuth Park in Palm Springs. The sections have been “adopted” by local businesses, covering maintenance costs. Fifteen additional miles are planned for 2020.

One day in July, Kirk stood under the angular, midcentury-inspired shade structure on the Ramon Road access point. The path is designed in such a way that the orange lines point toward the mountains, the blue out to the Salton Sea. It’s situated at the top of the levee, the wash carved out like a canyon below. Kirk looked east, where the sun was still rising and the mountains looked soft and pastel.

“We know how special the Coachella Valley is,” he says, “but you don’t see as much of that when you’re inside a house, looking out a window, or isolated from the world in a car. It’s the kind of thing you see from a trail. Here, you’re part of the environment.”

A Changing Landscape Favors CV Link

The first bikeway in the United States was Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway, a 5-mile lane constructed in 1894 by splitting a pedestrian road. It was designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, the same innovators behind Central Park.

The popularity of Ocean Parkway led to dedicated paths such as California’s Cycleway, an elevated wooden bike tollway that opened in 1900 and was intended to run from Pasadena to Los Angeles, though it never reached past South Pasadena’s Raymond Hotel.

As motorcar popularity soared, so did the efforts of the car lobbies to remove cyclists from roadways — as well as cycling lobbies’ efforts to remove cars from roadways and build distinct “motor roads” instead.

The popularity of Ocean Parkway led to dedicated paths such as California’s Cycleway, an elevated wooden bike tollway that opened in 1900 and was intended to run from Pasadena to Los Angeles, though it never reached past South Pasadena’s Raymond Hotel.

As motorcar popularity soared, so did the efforts of the car lobbies to remove cyclists from roadways — as well as cycling lobbies’ efforts to remove cars from roadways and build distinct “motor roads” instead.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY NEW YORK CITY PARKS PHOTO ARCHIVE

America’s first bike path opened in 1894 in Brooklyn.

The cycling proponents didn’t win that one. But the League of American Wheelmen did have great success lobbying politicians for better, flatter road surfaces, as part of an effort called the Good Roads Movement. The movement inspired road improvements, construction of new roads, and the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, and bicyclists were to thank for all of it.

Even though the bicycle lobbies wielded their power to improve the roads for all, bikes never became a fundamental part of the U.S. transportation infrastructure. But for many reasons — among them environmental concerns, health, tourism, and overall wellness — that landscape is changing.