WASHINGTON — Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on his first trip to the nation’s capital as the city’s chief executive, isn’t letting Washington’s preoccupation with budget deficits get in the way of his push for federal approval of a $1-billion project to restore the Los Angeles River.
In meetings on Capitol Hill and at the White House, Garcetti lobbied officials to support a project that is more than double the cost of the one recommended by the Army Corps of Engineers. He even got about 15 minutes in the Oval Office with President Obama, who brought up the river project.
But the daunting task of winning congressional support for such an ambitious project in an era of federal austerity could be like the kayak ride that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), an ally in the fight, recently took with his 11-year-old son on a stretch of the river: “A lot of rocks. A lot of hazards. And a lot of spills.”
Garcetti’s lobbying comes as the Republican-controlled House has pushed to cut federal spending and as the Army Corps faces a $60-billion-plus backlog of other projects awaiting funding.
“You can potentially risk not getting anything if you reach too high,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Still, this could be one of those projects that benefits from California senators’ rise in seniority. Sen. Barbara Boxer chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which authorizes water projects, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein chairs the appropriations subcommittee, which helps decide what water projects are funded and how much they receive.
“Of course, I’m going to fight hard for what the people in L.A. want,” Boxer said in an interview Tuesday.
Feinstein, however, said Los Angeles officials may need to find a middle ground with the Army Corps.
“It may well be that a compromise is the way to go,” she said in an interview. “But the pressures here are enormous for that money.”
But Garcetti said he still planned to push for the $1-billion project, even if it takes longer to complete.
“I feel very optimistic about our chances,” he said Tuesday. He was meeting with Democratic and Republican lawmakers in an attempt to build bipartisan support for the project, including inviting House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) to Los Angeles for a tour of the river.
Los Angeles officials are seeking to transform a stretch of the river, much of it the encased in concrete since the 1930s to control flooding, into a civic attraction offering recreational opportunities and restoring habitat between downtown and Griffith Park. The project favored by Los Angeles would restore habitat to a larger area than the one recommended by the Army Corps. Garcetti said the Army Corps’ recommendation leaves “too many islands of developed areas around the river that are cut off from each other.”
The corps, in a preliminary staff recommendation, has called for a $453-million project, with the federal government picking up about 30% of the tab.
Los Angeles officials and their congressional allies, Democratic Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard of Downey, Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles and Schiff, are working to persuade the Army Corps to go with a $1.08-billion restoration project, with federal taxpayers and the city sharing equally in the costs.
A final recommendation is expected to be submitted in late spring to Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, the Army Corps’ commanding general and chief of engineers. The recommendation then will go to Congress, where it would be difficult to change the recommendation.
Garcetti said that he is aware of Washington’s fiscal constraints but noted that funding for the project would be stretched out over a number of years.
“We don’t want to look back a generation from now and say, ‘Oh, another incomplete project in L.A. again,’ ” he said in an interview.
Garcetti had planned to visit Washington in mid-July, shortly after taking office, but scrapped the trip after protests broke out in the city over George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
The mayor was joined by Councilmen Gil Cedillo, Bob Blumenfield and Mitch O’Farrell and state Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez in making the rounds in the Capitol and at the White House. They met with, among others, senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Jo-Ellen Darcy, the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works. Garcetti also discussed transportation projects with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
Lewis MacAdams, president of Friends of the Los Angeles River, was among the project’s proponents in Washington this week. “I’m really beginning to feel like this is going to happen in my lifetime -- at least the beginnings of taking out the concrete,” he said.
Garcetti’s predecessor Antonio Villaraigosa faced similar political challenges when he began pushing for expansion of a federal transportation loan program in the midst of a congressional drive to reduce Washington’s red ink, remarking in 2010 that initially “everybody laughed us out of their offices.” But the expanded loan program, designed to speed up transit projects, is now law, due in a large part to Boxer heading the committee that helped write the transportation bill.
Asked if the Los Angeles River was a grandiose enough project to be a top priority for his first visit to Washington as mayor, Garcetti pointed to New York City’s popular elevated High Line park.
“This is the reclaiming of urban green space in the heart of our city,” he said.
Schiff, meanwhile, in discussing his kayak ride with his son, called it “astounding to see the wildlife, to feel like I was a million miles away from the city of Los Angeles…. That’s just a fraction of the potential of the river.”
“We were lucky to stay in our boat, but many others tipped over,” he added in an interview.