Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Long Beach Port Bridge Replacement Approaching Reality

The nearly decade-long effort by the Port of Long Beach to replace a deteriorating late-1960s-era bridge that is a key egress point for many of the port's marine terminals took a major step forward last week with the release of the final environmental impact report for construction of a $1.13 billion replacement bridge.

Opened in 1968, the existing Gerald Desmond Bridge connects Terminal Island with downtown Long Beach and serves as a major commuter route into the city heart. It also provides access to the southern end of the Long Beach Freeway, the primary route for trucks hauling cargo to and from both the Long Beach and neighboring Los Angeles ports. According to Long Beach port officials, about 15 percent of the nation's goods travel over the bridge each year. Approximately 25 percent of the 58,000 to 68,000 vehicles which traverse the bridge each day are trucks servicing the two ports.

Originally designed to last between 40 and 50 years, the steel and concrete Gerald Desmond Bridge is reaching the end of its useful life, and has been deteriorating more rapidly in the last decade.

The bridge is susceptible to ‘spalling’ a phenomenon that results from rusting rebar that causes cement to flake off the structure.

Concrete falls off the underside of the bridge so regularly that port officials were forced to install two nets—first in 2001 and then in 2004. Referred to by locals as a diaper, the nets catch the pieces of falling concrete—some pieces as large as baseballs.

In late-2003, the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, found the bridge to be in such poor shape that it gave the structure a sufficiency rating of 54.3 out of a possible 100 points, just above the 50.0 rating that typically moves the bridge into the "to be replaced" category (and by coincidence the same rating given the Minneapolis roadway bridge which collapsed in 2007). Despite state and local officials claims that the bridge remains safe for traffic, the Caltrans rating for the Gerald Desmond Bridge has fallen since 2003 to 48 points out of 100. The national average rating for high-traffic bridges like the Gerald Desmond is 85 points. 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 underside spalling.

The existing bridge, which spans the port's main channel, also has limited road deck capacity and is not tall enough to allow passage of the largest container vessels to the back-channel area's of the port.

The replacement bridge, if built, will address both the capacity and height issues.

"The [existing] bridge is obsolete and deteriorating," said Port Executive Director Richard Steinke. “The new bridge will add lanes for improved traffic flow and dedicated safety lanes to keep traffic moving if there’s a breakdown or accident.”

The new bridge would have three traffic lanes plus emergency lanes in both directions, compared to the two lanes in each direction on the existing bridge (note: in the 2000s, the port added an extra approach lane in each direction but each merge before the apex of the span into two lanes on the downside in each direction). 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 project is expected to face an approval vote at the Aug. 9 meeting of the port governing board. Port officials also plan to begin meeting with potential project contractors on Aug. 10 about the possibility of utilizing the "design-build" process to accelerate the construction of the new bridge.

When first conceptualized in the early 2000s, the replacement bridge was estimated to cost $350 million, a cost which has nearly tripled during the development of several proposed replacement plans.

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 $652 million from various sources have been earmarked, including: $318 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 $474 million in federal funds have yet to be identified.

Plans call for the new bridge, when completed, to be turned over to Caltrans as a state asset where it will become part of the state highway system.