After years of delays and escalating costs, the city of Los Angeles has moved to take over planning and construction of a pedestrian, equestrian and bicycle bridge over the L.A. River that would connect Griffith Park and Atwater Village.
The private nonprofit River LA — formerly known as the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation — first took on design and construction of the bridge more than five years ago, but costs for the project have skyrocketed.
City leaders originally called for a $5-million bridge but now estimate the total cost of construction and maintenance at about $13 million. River LA has said that it secured the additional funding needed, but the Bureau of Engineering estimates a shortfall of $3.6 million.
The city’s parks and river committee on Monday moved to enter a gift agreement with River LA. Under the agreement, River LA would hand over all designs and planning documents, and the city would assume responsibility for completing the project.
Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who chairs the committee, said the city is as committed as ever to building the bridge but needs to take some time to re-evaluate.
“My bottom line is I want to get this bridge built, but I want to make sure that we are fiscally responsible and that we don’t end up in the rabbit hole of funding a big, beautiful, iconic, fancy bridge where the price escalates and we’re always looking for money to fund it,” O’Farrell told KPCC. “If that’s the situation we find ourselves in, my concern is that we’ll never build the bridge.”
How costs grew as the bridge idea took shape
The idea for the bridge dates to at least 2011, when River LA approached real estate investor Morton La Kretz to help fund the project. La Kretz pledged nearly $3.7 million, and River LA pieced together a combination of public and private funding to fill the gap.
The plan was to build the city’s first cable-stay equestrian and bicycle bridge across the L.A. River, according to Eli Kaufman, River LA’s director of communications.
But with feedback from the community, the decision was ultimately made to move the bridge up river about a half-mile from its original location. A new location required a new design, driving up the estimated costs, Kaufman told KPCC.
River LA procured more funding, including a $3.6-million grant from the California Department of Transportation.
Plans apparently began to fall apart during negotiations with the state, however. In auditing River LA, Caltrans found that the company had inadequate procurement procedures. River LA was given an extension to enter into a master agreement with the state, which was required to keep the grant, but Caltrans ultimately recommended handing the project back to the city, according to a report from the Bureau of Engineering.
La Kretz also wanted oversight of his portion of the funding and the ability to negotiate directly with the city, so River LA gave him back his donation, Kaufman said.
But all funding, including the donation from La Kretz, remains attached to the project, according to both the city and River LA.
Kaufman said River LA intends to remain an active partner, even if the city was now transitioning to take the lead.
“In a perfect world, we would get back to designing and building a $5 million bridge — or maybe $6 [million], maybe seven,” O’Farrell said.
Concerns about bridge safety
At Monday's hearing, the committee ordered the Bureau of Engineering to report back within 30 days on the costs of an alternative design and of on-going maintenance.
O’Farrell said he hopes the extra time will allow the city to get feedback from professional bridge builders, serving as a reality check on the cost of construction.
Whatever alternatives are presented, the city faces pressure from the equestrian community to alter the current design. O’Farrell noted the bridge was originally intended to create a safer passage for horses and their riders, which currently have to go down into the river to cross.
But the cables that support the bridge in the current design could pose a danger to riders if a horse was suddenly spooked, Elaine Brock, who runs the San Rafael Hunt Club, an equestrian center in Atwater Village, told the committee.
O’Farrell agreed, noting that in addition to safety concerns, a cable-stay bridge has special maintenance requirements, including regular tightening, to meet state regulations. Such requirements could push costs higher.
Meanwhile, not all of the bridge funding is guaranteed.
The $3.6-million grant from Caltrans will expire if not spent.
Shirley Lau with the city’s Department of Public Works told the committee she would be requesting a one-year extension from Caltrans, pushing the deadline to September 2017.
You can read the initial study on the bridge below below: