Environment & Science

LA River plan pushed along to federal government

A great blue heron lands near the banks of the LA River just after a morning of rainfall on November 21.
A great blue heron lands near the banks of the LA River just after a morning of rainfall on November 21.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously on Wednesday to adopt a preliminary funding framework for a $1.35 billion project to restore hundreds of acres of land along the Los Angeles River to a more natural state.

The funding framework and other forms will be sent to the Army Corps of Engineers as a necessary step towards deciding the final breakdown of cost sharing. Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who sponsored the motion, said the vote opens the door to seeking federal assistance for the effort.

“This for the first time, gives us a long-term way forward with assistance from the federal government for local projects,” O’Farrell said.

The proposal is expected to be considered by the Army Corps of Engineers' Civil Works Review Board in June or July. 

The 51-mile waterway was largely concretized by the Army Corps of Engineers as a flood-control measure during the 1930s. The revitalization project would bring more native plants and some recreational features to an 11-mile stretch of the river from Griffith Park to downtown Los Angeles. It is estimated to take 30-50 years to complete.

It is not clear yet how much of the money will be supplied by the federal government and how much will come from the City of Los Angeles.

Federal assistance was originally expected to represent half of the costs. However, the Army Corps of Engineers changed expectations earlier this year after estimates for the project increased by hundreds of millions of dollars due to land acquisition issues.

“We were caught by surprise in January that the price had gone up and that the Army Corps’ expectation was that the city would kick in anywhere from 71-87 percent of the match, as opposed to 50 percent,“ O’Farrell said.

He said he is hoping negotiations will result in the federal government supplying a higher proportion of the funds.

Still, the funding framework adopted by the city shows potential local funding sources could account for about a billion dollars of the costs. O’Farrell said the vote does not commit the city to abide by it.  

“What we’re doing is signifying to Washington that we are capable of raising hundreds of millions of dollars up to a billion over the span of 30 years, but we’re not contractually agreeing to raising that type of capital to do our projects,” O’Farrell said.

The proposed funding sources include cap-and-trade dollars as well as potential parcel taxes and voter-approved bond measures. O’Farrell said, however, that many of the included sources are simply suggestions and not currently seen as definite go-to funding streams.

“That’s just something that was put on an idea board, basically, and included in the report as an option. No one at this time is even talking about a bond or drafting one to be approved by voters. That’s simply on the list of possibilities that the [City Administrative Officer] included and that can be considered as well,” he said.

O’Farrell said he is looking into developing an Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District (EIFD) along the river. Doing so would allow a portion of future property taxes to be directed toward improvement projects. A report from the City Administrative Officer said amounts raised by an EIFD is unlikely to exceed $30 million.

Proponents of the river revitalization project said that the decision by the council, though incremental at face value, was important because of how it was delivered.

“Today was a little-noticed but extremely important step towards the rehabilitation of the Los Angeles River,” said Lewis MacAdams, president and co-founder of the Friends of the Los Angeles River. “There are many, many steps down the road, but this was a key one. This really put the city on record as supporting this project, and I think a 15-0 vote speaks for itself.”

MacAdams said he expects estimates for the project to increase but feels that the result will be more beneficial than other popular, pricey projects.

“The amount of money that it’s going to cost to do this will probably continue to spiral upward, and the city will continue to have to be very careful how it spends its money,” MacAdams said. “But as far as I’m concerned, it’s cheaper than building a football stadium.”

Possible funding sources for LA River plan (From 2/23/15 CAO report)