The future of a controversial $100 million, 50-mile transportation corridor in the Coachella Valley is in jeopardy after a lawsuit was filed alleging “illegal” funds are being used to build it.

Construction on the CV Link was scheduled to begin this fall.

Led by the Coachella Valley Association of Governments (CVAG), CV Link is a plan to combine pedestrians, bicyclists, and low-speed electric vehicles (including golf carts) on a dual pathway. CV Link was designed to connect Coachella Valley cities and the lands of three federally recognized tribes with a path that largely parallels Highway 111, the busiest corridor in the valley.

Jim Ferguson, a Palm Desert attorney, former member of the Palm Desert City Council and longtime resident of Palm Desert filed the suit.

The lawsuit, filed on Friday, Oct. 13, in Riverside County Superior Court in Palm Springs, alleges that money from a variety of sources, including Measure A, a half-cent sales tax for transportation, is being used illegally to pay for the project. Voters approved Measure A in 1988.

A hearing is set for 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 12, 2018 before the Honorable James Latting.

Over the weekend, Erica Felci, governmental projects manager for CVAG, issued the following statement: “Mr. Ferguson has already called us ‘thugs’ so it’s not surprising he would file a lawsuit as a way to disparage CV Link. The project’s funding sources have been reviewed and supported many times over the years. Our attorney will address them again in court while we remain focused on finishing construction of the project’s first phase.”

On Monday, Felci said CVAG leadership “won’t be discussing the lawsuit beyond my statement.”

The taxpayer’s lawsuit is filed against CVAG, the Riverside County Transportation Commission and the South Coast Air Quality Management District for the alleged illegal use of funds from Measure A, Transportation Uniform Mitigation Fee (TUMF) and the Sentinel Power Plant Air Pollution Mitigation Program for CV Link.

The lawsuit alleges CVAG has illegally committed the use of Measure A and TUMF proceeds to pay for the operation, maintenance, engineering, acquisition and construction of CV Link, contrary to the provisions of Measure A and voters’ intent.  According to the text of Measure A, its revenue cannot be used for anything resembling a CV Link in the Coachella Valley since it is not a roadway under state law, the lawsuit alleges.

Plus, the neighborhood electrical component (NEV, a golf cart) component of CV Link cannot be approved or constructed, since the law that permitted the approval of a NEV network plan such as the one planned for CV Link in the Coachella Valley expired on Jan. 1, 2017, according to the lawsuit.

Incidentally, this law was not enacted until eight years after the voters approved Measure A which is why it is unreasonable to believe the voters intended Measure A tax dollars could be used for CV Link, according to Ferguson.  This is critically significant, since CVAG is relying on the NEV component to qualify CV Link as a “roadway” eligible for Measure A funding and TUMF funding.  Although the NEV component of CV Link does not turn CV Link into a “roadway,” this NEV component was also used by CVAG as justification for being eligible for the $17.4 million grant it was awarded by AQMD from the Sentinel Power Plant emissions-reduction grant program.

The lawsuit also alleges that since CVAG has disqualified CV Link as an eligible emission’s reduction project, due to CVAG’s failure and inability to adopt and implement the NEV component of CV Link. As such, AQMD must immediately terminate the grant contract with CVAG and reallocate the $17.4 million it awarded for CV Link (because of its planned NEV component) to other public agencies in the Coachella Valley with bona fide emissions-reduction projects that can be legally approved and implemented under current laws. AQMD terminated its emissions-reduction grant contract with the City of Desert Hot Springs for less egregious reasons.

Ferguson said AQMD should consider reallocating a bulk of the $17.4 million to DHS for emissions-reduction projects that will directly benefit the residents of DHS (particularly the elderly, children and low-income families) who reside in close proximity to the Sentinel Power Plant.

The lawsuit questions the wisdom of CVAG’s Executive Director, who is currently Tom Kirk, for his negligent failure to bring this matter to the attention of the Executive Committee, the taxpayers who pay the ½-cent sales tax and the private developers who must pay their fair share into the TUMF program for projects they develop in Riverside County.

Finally, the lawsuit challenges RCTC for its approval and consent of the illegal use of Measure A funds by CVAG for the operation, maintenance, engineering, acquisition and construction of CV Link, since RCTC has been entrusted by the voter s in 1982 and 2002 to be the “gatekeeper” of Measure A funds to ensure they are properly used and spent in the manner approved by the voters.

Ferguson is asking the court to issue court orders to restrain CVAG, RCTC and AQMD from using any public money from Measure A, TUMF and the Sentinel Power Plant grant fund for CV Link. The request is due primarily to CVAG’s legal inability to approve the NEV component of CV Link because it now lacks the legal authority to adopt a NEV Network plan due to the expiration of the law that once provided CVAG and its members with the legal authority to approve a NEV network plan such as the one CVAG had planned to approve as part of the CV Link project.

Glossary of Acronyms:

CVAG is the COACHELLA VALLEY ASSOCIATION OF GOVERNMENTS which is a joint powers authority that serves as a regional planning agency for its members, which include the cities of Blythe, Cathedral City, Coachella, Desert Hot Springs, Indian Wells, Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert, Palm Springs and the County of Riverside.  CVAG is governed by an Executive Committee comprised of elected representatives of each member city and the five Supervisors of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors.

RCTC is the RIVERSIDE COUNTY TRANSPORTATION COMMISSION which consists of 34 public agency members which includes all of the agencies represented by CVAG. RCTC is responsible for coordinating highway and transit planning and identifying projects for state and federal funding, and engaging in all aspects of regional-wide transportation planning for Riverside County.

AQMD is the SOUTH COAST AIR QUALITY MANAGEMENT DISTRICT which is a public agency that serves as the air pollution control agency for all of Orange County and the urban portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. AQMD is governed by a Governing Board consisting of thirteen members, ten (1) of whom are elected officials, and three (3) of whom are appointed by the state.

TUMF is the Transportation Uniform Mitigation Fee, a program that ensures that new development pays its fair share for the increased traffic that it creates. It is administered by the Western Riverside Council of Governments.