Does L.A. Need to Spend $425 Million on a River Bike Path?

L.A. River Bike Path
L.A. River Bike Path
Isaac Simpson

In November, L.A. County denizens will enjoy the privilege of voting on a new half-cent sales tax to fund $120 billion worth of public transit, doubling L.A.'s existing rail network. Lots of people are psyched (though not everyone) about a train through the Sepulveda Pass, offering at least the possibility of a life beyond the hell that is the 405 freeway (although it's really not that bad!). 

Lost in the hubbub over trains and busways and such are two line items in the spending plan:

Does L.A. Need to Spend $425 Million on a River Bike Path? (3)

Those two little lines would achieve a dream long held by L.A. River revitalization boosters and bicyclists: a contiguous, 51-mile bike path along the Los Angeles River. 

"This is a great day for the Los Angeles River and active transportation across our region," L.A. River Revitalization Corporation executive director Omar Brownson said in a written statement. "Our Greenway 2020 plan always envisioned an unbroken 51-mile river spine, giving Los Angeles a 'linear central park.' So we are especially excited that the Measure R draft realizes that vision, potentially providing funding to create a 51-mile bike and pedestrian path."

There are a number of bike paths on the river right now. One, built by the county in 2001, goes from the river mouth in Long Beach all the way up to Vernon. Another popular section goes from just north of Chinatown to Griffith Park. But aside from a few bits and bobs in the Valley, that's about it. There are long sections of the river with no access points at all.

I once tried biking the entire length of the L.A. River. It did not go well. EXPAND
I once tried biking the entire length of the L.A. River. It did not go well.
Hillel Aron

This plan, then, would connect the existing paths and provide access to the entire river by the year 2025 — which just happens to be Mayor Eric Garcetti's previously stated goal. All for the low, low price of ... $425 million.

That sounds a bit steep, no?

"It’s not a lot compared to the money they’re spending on highways," bicycle activist and StreetsblogLA editor Joe Linton pointed out.

We tried to figure out why so much money was allocated for the bike paths. Would the paths be paved with gold? Lined with tuxedo-wearing attendants serving riders hot cocoa? Will soft jazz music be piped from speakers carefully hidden behind the shrubbery?

Here's what Metro spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas said in a written statement:

Because the L.A. River is constrained by urban development and has many over-crossings from roads, freeways and rail, bike path requires heavy civil construction. Neither of these projects fund parks, as Metro sees the L.A. River Bike Path as a vital piece of transportation infrastructure. A complete L.A. River Bike Path will function as the backbone of biking and walking infrastructure for densest parts of L.A. County, providing transportation choice to residents experiencing the most traffic.

Bike paths are estimated to cost an average $133,000 (and as much as $537,000) per mile — which would put the construction of a new, 51-mile bike path anywhere between $7 million and $27 million. Four years ago, a proposed 3-mile bike lane spanning New York's new Tappan Zee Bridge carried an estimated price tag of a whopping $400 million.

Most of the L.A. River has an intermittent service road on its banks. That road can be easily and relatively cheaply turned into a bike path. Other parts are more difficult. A section of the river in the San Fernando Valley, for example, has channel walls that go straight down — the channel looks like a giant, rectangular gutter. Building a bike path there would be like building a little road. 

But the most expensive section of the L.A. River bike path will be the downtown section. Not only is there no service road there but the river is flanked on either side by railway lines. So there are two problems: Where do you put the bike path (some want it inside the channel, which would be really cool but possibly dangerous), and how do you actually let people access the river?

Now you're talking about bridges, tunnels, spiral ramps and possibly even a bike elevator of some sort. If they want more than two or three access points, this could be a large part of the cost.

Planners may also want money for lights, signage and other safety features. Maybe they'll even throw in a bit for some greenery. 

Still. $425 million? For a bike path? We expect someone, at some point, to get pissed off about this. 


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