It’s been four years since 14-year-old Eli Rodriguez was swept away by the Pacoima Wash — in still unknown circumstances—as he made his way from Cesar Chavez Learning Academies to his grandmother’s house.
His disappearance on Feb. 17, 2017 in the middle of a fierce rainstorm with hurricane winds drove the community to hold vigils, marches, and a large search effort that at one point even involved the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Rodriguez, a skateboarder with a sweet smile, was missing for a week before his body was found 18 miles away on an island in the Los Angeles River near Los Feliz. The county coroner ruled his death an accidental drowning.
The tragedy prompted calls for added safety measures to the bridge along Glenoaks Boulevard that runs over the Pacoima Wash, where a short, metal rail fence is also located to keep people from falling into the Wash.
Yet, additional measures such as the chain link railing that Caltrans uses on freeway overpasses have not been executed, partly because of the complicated “jurisdiction of the area” as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, said Nick Kimball, San Fernando City Manager.
But, Kimball said, the project is still a priority for the City and work could finally start sometime this summer.
In 2019, after Rodriguez’ family called for it, the San Fernando City Council directed its staff to put together a plan to improve safety along the bridge, which has a narrow sidewalk plus a 3-foot fence that doesn’t reach farther than a person’s hip and dangerously hovers over the wash.
The bridge was built in 1953 and was last retrofitted in 2000. The county has deemed it “functionally obsolete” due to the heavy amount of traffic that passes over it on a daily basis.
During a presentation before the City council, Albert Wong of the Los Angeles County Department of Public works said one of the proposals would add bolted chain link railing to the existing bridge.
The fence openings are a maximum one-inch wide, which not only could help keep pedestrians safe but also make it difficult to throw objects through them. The chain link railing would double the barrier’s height.
But putting up that added fencing is complicated by the jurisdictional oversight of the bridge and the Pacoima Wash.
The City of San Fernando owns the street over the bridge, Kimball explained, but the LA County Public Works has jurisdiction over the wash, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers.
“The county is responsible for the wash,” Kimball said. “They have review and approval rights for any changes we make to it,” Kimball said.
To expedite the process, the City decided to pay the county $10,000 for an engineering design that includes a set of specifications that can now be put out for bids from contractors.
Hiring the county for this work was supposed to speed up the process, eliminating the need to get its approval and a review permit. But “(the county) finished it just as COVID was hitting last year,” Kimball said.
The epidemic and its shutdown put a lot of construction projects on hold ‘including this project,” Kimball said, adding “many of the agencies shut down and were not doing work for a whole year.”
But now, he said, the City is moving forward. Last year it designated $100,000 for the project; those funds were carried over to this year.
With the engineering design complete, the City will now put the project up for bids, which should take a couple of months. Kimball expects construction to potentially begin “sometime this summer,” unless the county requires a permit to conduct the construction.
The construction would last four to six weeks.
Despite the delays, the project remains atop the council’s list, Kimball said.
“Obviously it’s a really important community safety project,” he said. “Fortunately, there hasn’t been another tragedy of that magnitude (of Eli Rodriguez). Every once in a while there are individuals who access the wash from various spots. We’ve been able to rescue some people along with the Los Angeles Fire Department.”
Access along the wash is still available for miles. It’s constantly an issue, the city manager said.
“We’re going to start moving this forward. We don’t want to wait until something else happens,” Kimball said.