By David Downey | Contributing Writer
Southern Californians may one day be able to take a train to the Palm Springs area to attend music and date festivals, roll the dice at casinos, tour museums, ride a tram or dine at restaurants.
And Riverside County desert dwellers could be riding west to catch the Dodgers or Lakers, visit Disneyland, Los Angeles art and history museums or even the Mission Inn’s annual Festival of Lights in Riverside.
All could take advantage of a passenger rail service that would run 144 miles from Los Angeles Union Station to the Coachella Valley, through L.A., Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Aaron Hake, deputy executive director of the Riverside County Transportation Commission, which is leading the effort to create the service, said the vision is to offer a competitive travel option for people headed to the Coachella Valley – and desert residents headed to the west.
The construction price tag would be at least $1 billion, he said.
“Right now there is no alternative to driving I-10,” Hake said of the 10 Freeway. “That’s it. And when there is an accident or a festival in the desert, you’re stuck with the 10.”
It could be 10 years before Coachella Valley Rail service begins.
“We would like it to happen much quicker than that,” Hake said. “There is a need today for the service.”
There’s a lot of work to do, however, to make the vision a reality.
Coachella Valley Rail is one of several area train projects in the works.
Arrow, a 9-mile passenger line built by the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority, is scheduled to begin service later this month. There are plans to build a high-speed rail line to ferry gamblers between Rancho Cucamonga and Las Vegas, which would enable people from all over Southern California to reach the Nevada entertainment capital by train. And a study would open a way for air travelers to reach Ontario International Airport by train.
The Coachella Valley train project recently reached a milestone.
The Riverside County Transportation Commission, Federal Railroad Administration and Caltrans studied ways to expand travel choices between Los Angeles and the Coachella Valley for six years. In June, Riverside County commissioners certified an environmental study that centered on the idea of operating trains daily in the corridor.
Plans call for running at least two trains back and forth daily, possibly five, Hake said.
“And hopefully there is demand for more,” he said.
Another study is needed, one that examines in depth the environmental impacts that would be created by construction, which would involve building about 77 miles of track and five train stations, Hake said.
There would be nine train stations in all, he said. The project would rely on existing stations in downtown L.A., Fullerton, Riverside and Palm Springs.
New stations would be built in the Loma Linda-Redlands area, the Calimesa-Beaumont-Banning area, somewhere in the middle of the Coachella Valley, Indio, and the city of Coachella, Hake said.
The new tracks would be added between Colton and Coachella, he said.
The next, more detailed environmental study is expected to cost $60 million, Hake said, and the agency will apply by December for a $20 million federal grant to help cover the expense and start the analysis.
Otis Greer, director of legislative and public affairs for the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority, said the authority welcomes “all efforts to increase transit options” in the Inland Empire.
“We have raised a number of questions and look forward to working with them as they advance the environmental work for the project,” Greer wrote in an email.
Preliminary estimates peg the construction cost in the $1 billion to $1.5 billion range, Hake said.
“It’s going to be expensive,” said Riverside City Council Member Chuck Conder, who represents his city on the Riverside County commission.
But as costly as it will be, Conder said building an extra set of tracks is going to be crucial for the rail line to succeed.
Freight trains run on existing tracks between Colton and Coachella and have the right of way, he said.
“If you’re going to get a passenger train stuck behind a freight train, people are not going to use it,” Conder said, saying the service has to run at high speeds on a separate track.
The goal, Hake said, is to make train rides competitive with trips by car.
There are no plans to add track west of Colton, where there is adequate rail capacity, Hake said.
Riverside County Supervisor Karen Spiegel, who also sits on the commission, said the project will ease congestion on the 10 Freeway and create a new way to reach entertainment events and venues in the Coachella Valley.
“There is a lot to do out there,” said Spiegel, one of several commission officials who traveled to Washington, D.C. in September to promote the project and lobby for federal dollars for the next study.
The area is known for its Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Stagecoach Country Music Festival, Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival, Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens and other events and attractions.
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The project also would expand travel options for desert residents.
V. Manuel Perez, the transportation commission chair and Riverside County supervisor from the Coachella Valley, said in a statement that “CV Rail will be a massive boost for the Coachella Valley.”
The train will connect the valley with employment and education opportunities, Perez said, while bolstering the entire region’s economy and cleaning the air.
Hake called the project “a huge economic development opportunity to make the Coachella Valley more accessible to everybody in Southern California.”