Whooshing past sycamore trees, flowing water and an occasional great blue heron perched majestically on a rock, Jim Hanson pedaled and pedaled as his bicycle glided in a streak through Silver Lake, past Los Feliz and up into Griffith Park on the Los Angeles River Bikeway.
But the Echo Park resident stopped abruptly when he neared the edge of the San Fernando Valley on the north side of the park, where this stretch of the proposed 52-mile bike path ends. Looking left and right, the 46-year-old Web developer eased his bike into street traffic as cars whizzed past.
"It's my dream," Hanson said, "to see [the bikeway] go all the way."
For recreational cyclists and pedaling commuters like Hanson, dreams of riding uninterrupted along the meandering river--from Long Beach through downtown, traversing the Sepulveda Basin all the way to Canoga Park--remain elusive. Among the roadblocks are many of the 41 bridges spanning the river as it courses through the San Fernando Valley.
Although the bridges have long connected communities, they are now viewed as obstacles to a future bike path because their vertical bottoms stop at the river's concrete-lined edge, leaving no room for bike traffic to pass underneath.
With a bridge-rehabilitation project underway across Los Angeles, city officials and cycling advocates have joined forces to urge that any improvement work also accommodate room for a bikeway.
"What we're saying is, when you redo this bridge, give us some space underneath," said Ron Milam, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. "Why not cut a hole so a bike path could go through it?"
Take, for example, a stretch of the river wiggling through Studio City. Flanked by stately eucalyptus trees and far from the din of busy streets, the wide banks on each side of the water would be ideal for riding, cyclists say.
But at several points, the riverbanks run into concrete abutments that support a bridge. The only way a cyclist or pedestrian can go around is to climb over the bridges through traffic.
A pending Los Angeles City Council motion notes that "this vast bikeway cannot be possible without bridge underpasses.... If the bridge retrofit projects move forward without incorporating bikeway needs, it will effectively kill the bikeway through the Valley."
The motion directs the city's Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Works' Bureau of Engineering to study ways to accommodate the river bikeway as they rehabilitate the Valley's aging bridges.
Now, the city's transportation planners and engineers are "going back and looking at the bridges to see which ones need redesign" to help incorporate the bikeway, said Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, a co-sponsor of the motion.
Peter See, the city's bridge project manager, said his staff supports the bikeway, but their work depends on funding.
Funding has been secured to accommodate the bikeway under certain bridges, such as those at Vanowen Street and Tampa Avenue in the Valley, but not others, such as the one at Fulton Avenue, said John Koo, another project manager. Unless funds are allocated, Koo said, plans to widen the Fulton bridge will proceed without incorporating room for the bikeway.
Bureau staff will present a report to council members next month outlining alternatives and costs.
The price tag for the river bike path--which some call a "bicycle freeway" because of its overhead lighting--runs about $1 million per mile if the path is clear. Obstacles like bridges further inflate costs. Tunneling a bikeway underpass through an abutment can cost as much as $500,000, engineers say.
A recently opened bicycle bridge--which allowed reclining cyclist Hanson to travel in a graceful arc over the automobile traffic below on Los Feliz Boulevard--cost $2 million.
"Nothing is impossible. If you throw enough money at it, you can build anything," said Michelle Mowery, the bicycle coordinator for the city's Department of Transportation. "The truth is, we have a very small pot of money."
Completion of the bikeway faces additional challenges when engineers extend it further south into downtown Los Angeles, where it will encounter a tangle of freeways, rail lines and utility corridors. There are no official estimates on how much it would cost or how long it might take to complete the 30 or so more miles of the bikeway.
Still, advocates remain hopeful.
Progress has been made in the last few years, they say. Some parts of the bikeway are in place. Another segment from Fletcher Drive in Silver Lake to Barclay Street in Elysian Park is in the design phase.
To extend the bikeway into the Valley, the city plans to apply to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has already provided $11.5 million for the project over the last several years.
And as the bikeway has grown, so has public awareness and support, city officials say. The city's master bicycle plan to coax commuters to stop driving and start pedaling is part of a larger effort to revitalize the L.A. River and transform its banks into park-like grounds.
"We don't have a Central Park in Los Angeles. The River Greenway and the commuter bikeway can do that for us," said Melanie Winter, director of the River Project, a nonprofit group. "The river is one thing besides freeways that connects communities in L.A."