Mayor Garcetti is in Washington DC this week, pushing local infrastructure initiatives like the Regional Connector and Westside Subway. I’m a huge fan of both of those projects, but his biggest priority seems to be lobbying for the most expensive option for LA River rehab. Putting this project at the top of the list is a mistake on both the local and the national level.
At the local level, Regional Connector and Westside Subway will offer a much bigger return on investment. The former will eliminate operating inefficiencies and greatly improve the connectivity of the LRT network. The latter will cut the peak period travel time between UCLA and downtown LA in half. Given that the 10, the 405, and the 110 are among the nation’s most congested freeways, these projects are critical to economic growth in LA County, which is still suffering from very high unemployment. On the other hand, LA River improvements offer tangible recreation benefits, and maybe some tourist benefits, but the economic benefits are largely speculative. From Malibu to Mount Baldy, it’s not like LA County is short on places of natural beauty.
At the national level, the federal agency charged with responsibility for the LA River is the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), which for historical reasons is responsible for flood control. ACOE has a huge backlog of projects that are much more important than a trophy park for Los Angeles. For example, port channels need to be dredged, river levees need to be reinforced, and ill-conceived projects that are ruining valuable ecosystems like the Everglades need to be rectified. It is irresponsible for ACOE to spend billions on a park for LA with these needs outstanding.
For an example close to home, consider the Isabella Dam, which impounds the Kern River in the Sierra Nevada above Bakersfield. The dam has seepage issues and was unknowingly constructed on a dormant seismic fault. This has reduced the volume of water that can safely be stored by the dam, which means that a smaller flood could overwhelm the dam. If the dam fails, parts of Bakersfield will be devastated by flooding. To me, it is practically immoral to spend ACOE money on a park in LA while that sword of Damocles is hanging up above Kern Canyon.
Really, there is no federal concern in an LA River park. If we want to build it, we ought to raise the money locally, and have an honest debate about the trade-offs between the park and other potential public investments.