Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Long Beach Approves $1.1B Bridge Replacement

After more than a decade of planning, wishing and hoping, the governing board for the Port of Long Beach on Monday approved a $1.13 billion plan to replace the aging Gerald Desmond Bridge.

Described as one of the port-area's most critical infrastructure needs, the new bridge will be taller, wider and safer than the current bridge.

The 156-foot-tall Gerald Desmond Bridge, which is named after a former City official, links the port-area Terminal Island to Long Beach proper. The 40-year-old steel and concrete structure is a main egress point for trucks into the port. Upwards of 60,000 vehicles a day cross it's five-lane, 1,200-foot-long span over the port's main channel.

According to port officials, more than 15 percent of the nation's seaborne cargo moves over the bridge each year.

Port commissioners on Monday lauded the effort of port staff to get the project going before unanimously voting to approve the final environmental impact documents that were the last impediment to starting construction.

When opened in 1968, the Gerald Desmond Bridge was estimated to have a 50 year life span in terms of both capacity and engineering.

However, by the 1980s as containers volumes exploded at the port, and the adjacent Port of Los Angeles, the bridge became stretched well beyond its original capacity. It also began to deteriorate rapidly.

Concrete falls off the underside of the bridge at such a regular pace that port officials, first in 2001 and then again in 2004, were forced to install two nets, referred to by locals as a diaper, to catch the wayward missiles – some the size of baseballs.

In late-2003, the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, found the bridge to be in such poor shape that it rated the bridge in the agency's "to be replaced" category – the same rating given the Minneapolis roadway bridge which collapsed in 2007. Despite state and local officials’ claims the bridge remains safe for traffic, the Caltrans rating for the Gerald Desmond Bridge has fallen even further since 2003. A recent $1 million upgrade raised the Caltrans rating of the existing bridge's road deck from "critical condition" to "satisfactory," despite the ongoing issue of concrete falling from the underside.

The new bridge, which has yet to be given an official name though suggestions of keeping the same name have been floated, will be built just south of the current bridge. When the new bridge – which will feature a cable-stayed design – is completed, the old bridge will be demolished.

The new bridge would also feature three traffic lanes plus an emergency lane in both directions, compared to the two lanes in each direction on the existing bridge. The span of the new bridge would also offer a 200-foot mean high water level clearance underneath, as opposed to the 156-foot MHWL clearance of the existing bridge, to allow for the newest generation of cargo ships to pass underneath.

The replacement bridge will be funded by a combination of federal and state funds, with the port providing between 10 percent and 15 percent of the total cost in what port officials call "matching funds."

Of the total $1.13 billion in estimated costs for the replacement project, about $900 million from various sources have been earmarked, including: about $570 million from federal sources, $250 million in state funding, $29 million from Los Angeles County sources, and $55 million from port funds. According to port documents, just under $200 million in federal funds have yet to be identified.

Barring any legal actions against the project, preliminary work on the new bridge could begin within a few months, though an actual ground breaking on construction could be more than a year away. Construction is expected to take at least six years.