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LA River duck boats could showcase city's historic bridges

A city councilman wants to see duck boats lead tours along the LA River to see the city's historic bridges.
A city councilman wants to see duck boats lead tours along the LA River to see the city's historic bridges.
Matthew Gush

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City Councilman Tom LaBonge says he wants to put tourist duck boats on the Los Angeles River. The amphibious land-water vehicles would tour the landmark bridges that are close to downtown.

His proposal won the approval of the City Council's Trade and Tourism Committee Monday, but to become a reality, the plan requires review by local environmental groups, several more committee hearings, a vote of the full council and approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The original duck boats moved troops and gear over land and water during World War II. They were made by General Motors, based on a two-ton truck. Post-war, the surviving boats ended up as tourism vehicles in various cities. They're so popular in Boston they're used to ferry sports teams such the World Series-winning Red Sox around town during championship parades.

LaBonge envisions a duck boat tour that would begin at Olvera Street, go through Boyle Heights and down into the concrete-paved river channel to view the city's historic bridges from underneath.

"It's an opportunity to expose people to a part of Los Angeles that's quite unique and I know I can find a safe way to do it," LaBonge said. "It is not in the environmentally-sensitive area, and a lot of approvals are necessary.  It's just another way to celebrate Los Angeles."

The Friends of the Los Angeles River has been working for decades to remake the river's concrete channel into a more natural river. Slowly, recreational uses such as kayaking and hiking are being added to the green portions.

The rover group's founder, Lewis MacAdams, says he'd welcome tourists riding duck boats on the stark concrete parts of the waterway to showcase the city's iconic collection of concrete bridges.

"It could become like a great tour, I mean, the downtown L.A. River bridges are some of the most beautiful concrete arch bridges in the world," MacAdams said.

They were designed by Merrill Butler, who acted as the city's engineer from 1923 to 1961.

A company called Rubber Duck Tours tried to get amphibious tours going in Long Beach Harbor a few years ago, but it was short-lived.

Duck boats aren't failsafe. Thirteen people drowned in a 1999 accident on an Arkansas lake. And a duck boat capsized in 2010 in the Delaware River in Philadelphia after colliding with a barge.

The Los Angeles River, often derided as a waterless, sterile concrete channel, has no competing boat traffic to speak of, nor much water to sink in.

Which means if a duck boat broke down, you could probably get out and walk to shore.