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Port of Long Beach Gets New Bridge

The California town's skyline will be altered with the addition of a new six-lane bridge.

Thu October 31, 2013 - West Edition
Lori Lovely

In 2016 the city of Long Beach, Calif., will have a new iconic landmark in its harbor. The project to replace the aging Gerald Desmond Bridge is a joint effort of Caltrans and the Port of Long Beach, with funding contributed by the Port of Long Beach, the California Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Los Angeles County Department of Transportation.

In addition to altering the skyline, the new six-lane bridge with taller clearance is expected to dramatically improve this important commuter and trucking corridor and enhance Southern California’s vital link to international trade markets.

Designated a National Highway System Intermodal Connector Route and part of the Federal Strategic Highway Network, the Gerald Desmond Bridge is a critical structure serving the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the city of Long Beach, Los Angeles and Orange counties and the nation. Considered one of the nation’s most vital pieces of infrastructure, it sees 15 percent of all U.S. ship-borne cargo travels over it to nearly two-thirds of the country.

But as those cargo ships grow, the aging bridge is incapable of handling their increased dimensions. When the Gerald Desmond Bridge opened in 1968, cargo ships were about one-sixth the size of today’s ships. “They used to carry 8,000 container units,” said John Pope, community relations manager of the Port of Long Beach and project spokesman. Now they carry 14,000 containers — the largest container vessels to visit North American ports — and even bigger vessels are under construction: the newest can carry 18,000 container units. “It’s a tight fit.”

It’s more than tight. While some ships have to come in at low tide, others don’t fit at all. The north inner harbor is off limits to the biggest ships, Pope indicates. At 155 ft. (47 m), the existing bridge prevents some of the larger cargo ships from reaching piers within the inner channels. Because Long Beach is one of the world’s busiest seaports and continues to enjoy steady growth in cargo volumes, this limited access is becoming problematic.

The existing bridge is one of the lowest in a major port on the west coast. Its replacement will raise the clearance over the Port’s inner harbor channel 50 ft. (15 m), which will allow the new generation of larger, more efficient cargo ships to pass. At 205 ft. (62.5 m), the new Gerald Desmond Bridge will be the tallest cable-stayed bridge in the United States.

In addition to gaining height, the new bridge will also add girth with the addition of one lane in each direction to serve the current volume of 68,000 vehicles per day (18 million trips per year) and to accommodate projected traffic increases. Four new emergency lanes will alleviate backups due to accidents and breakdowns, adding a measure of safety for commuters.

Another reason behind the project is the cost of maintenance for the bridge that is reaching the end of its lifespan.

Landmark Project

There are approximately 43 cable-stayed bridges in the United States, but this will be California’s first cable-stayed bridge for traffic. It also will be the second tallest cable-stayed bridge in the country, featuring cable towers reaching 515 ft. (157 m) above the Long Beach skyline, and will have the highest clearance of any cable-stayed bridge.

The cable-stayed design is popular in Europe and Asia because of its efficient, cost-effective design and relatively lower construction costs. “With a predictable design, you get solid cost estimates because there are fewer variables in construction,” Pope said.

Despite the fact that “West coast infrastructure isn’t as old,” Pope said, the sleek, modern look of the new bridge will add an unusual silhouette. “There’s been a lot of buzz in Long Beach. People recognize that it will alter the landscape of the city. It’s expected to become a key landmark.”

It’s also expected to last. “We’re thinking of this as a 100-year bridge,” Pope said, explaining that typically, ships get wider, not taller, so the 200-ft. (61 m) clearance should be able to accommodate future ship designs.

The project is unique in other ways, as well. It will be one of the most seismically advanced structures in the country. Because Southern California is home to active earthquake faults, the bridge is being designed with the latest knowledge and techniques.

A cable-stayed bridge is a flexible structure by design. This bridge will have various components such as sheer links that will act as “fuses” to take the brunt of an earthquake’s energy, breaking to protect the overall integrity of the structure. The bridge will be built in sections, connected by hinges that will move in a quake.


Of the $1.1 billion budget, approximately $650 million is for actual bridge construction. Other budget items include the demolition of the bridge and pre-construction activity that involved utility relocation and moving dozens of old and active oil wells in the path of the new bridge.

Before any work could commence, active oil wells had to be capped and moved. The Port sits on the third-largest oil field in the country, so it was the Port’s responsibility to have the Right of Way cleared of utility lines and old oil wells. Some inactive wells had to be “re-abandoned” because they were capped to old standards. Locating vertical wells to depths of 240 ft. (73 m) amidst horizontally intersecting utility lines was a challenge, Pope said.

Another challenge is to not disrupt operations in one of the busiest ports in the world. Truck traffic moving cargo in and out of multiple piers/berths must not be impeded.

“I have attended several traffic management meetings,” Pope said, adding that their number one priority is terminal access, but that has been complicated by having four active projects in the same zone. “There are a lot of moving pieces; juggling is difficult.”

He said they haven’t had this many projects come together at once. Development in the Port was on hold for 10 years, but a recent focus on green port policy has to projects now. “It’s a new era of development.” Up to $4.5 billion is expected to be spent on projects over the next 10 years, aimed at improving and modernizing Port facilities. The bridge and middle harbor are the two biggest projects, at a cost of $2 billion.

It’s an exciting time, but there are growing pains, Pope said. Doing projects in the middle of a working port is a big challenge. “Long Beach is a major hub for international business. Truck and train routes can’t be shut for a long stretch of time, so the work has to be staged.”

In some cases, temporary alternate routes are being constructed. The Port, the contractor and the Port tenants are working together on timing to plan for the biggest potential disruptions during the non-peak traffic times and to build temporary roads and ramps to keep traffic flowing.

In July, demolition of an overpass blocking the footprint of the new bridge began. This required weekend closure, Pope said. To date, the project has had only that one major closure and has avoided major backups. “We will use that [closure] as a model.” He anticipates traffic issues in one year when construction reaches the intersection of Ocean Blvd. and Pico. “A lot of connectors need to be redone.”

Pre-construction is done and, as of late September, crews were testing for approximately 300 foundation piles.

The 8,000-ft.-long (2,438 m) bridge is being constructed next to the existing bridge, which will remain in use for drivers and will be demolished when the new bridge is completed.

Another unique aspect — at least for California — is the movable scaffolding systems. These systems replace the traditional “false work” (wood and steel support systems that rise from the ground to help frame an elevated roadway) when building bridge columns and road decks. Suspended in the air atop the bridge columns, the MSS will confine the framing and construction of the bridge deck to increase safety and improve construction efficiencies.

Joint venture SFI — made up of Shimmick Construction Co. Inc., FCC Construction S.A. and Impregilo S.p.A. — is general contractor, overseeing more than 300 key construction workers directly on the bridge and 2 to 3 times as many subs and supporting workers once work gets into full swing in 2014.

The bridge will feature more than 70 support columns and 40 cables for each tower. Each cable consists of 30 to 80 strands, depending on the location. Each strand is approximately 0.6 inches in diameter. If each strand was laid end to end, the length of all strands would reach 1.7 million ft. (519,768 m). The longest cable is approximately 573 ft. (175 m). Laid end to end, the total length of all cables would be approximately 15,000 ft. (4,572 m). The entire cable system weighs approximately 1.2 million lbs. (544,310 kg).

Materials required include approximately 17.5 million lbs. (7.9 million kg) of structural steel, 72 million lbs. (32.7 million) of rebar, 182,000 cu. yds. (139,149 cu m) of concrete.


Project benefits:

• Three lanes in each direction for improved traffic flow

• Emergency lanes on both sides to reduce traffic delays and safety hazards from accidents and vehicle breakdowns

• A 205-ft. (62.5 m) vertical clearance to accommodate the world’s largest, “greener” vessels

• A reduction in the bridge’s steep grades, for further improvements to traffic flow

• The Mark Bixby Memorial Bicycle Pedestrian Path with scenic overlooks

• Additional improvements include reconstruction of the Terminal Island East Interchange and the I-710/Gerald Desmond Bridge Interchange

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