When people drive, walk, or ride their bikes over the new bridge spanning the Long Beach harbor for the first time, they will be enjoying the result of 20 years of planning, development, and hard work by thousands of people. The new structure, designed to meet the highest standards of safety and serviceability, will be an iconic feature of the Downtown Long Beach skyline for the next 100 years.
“Engineers have a term for this kind of bridge: They call it a ‘signature bridge,’ the kind of bridge that shows up on a postcard,” said Duane Kenagy, Capital Programs Executive for the Port of Long Beach (POLB). Kenagy, who has been with POLB since 2014, described himself as “the single point of responsibility for the delivery of the Gerald Desmond Bridge Replacement Project.”
The replacement for the Gerald Desmond Bridge is not only a critical component of POLB’s infrastructure, but also that of the nationwide logistics system as it will accommodate 15 percent of all ship-borne U.S.- imported and exported cargo. The structure was funded and built through a partnership with POLB, CALTRANS, and the Federal Highway Administration. Additional funding was obtained through the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, along with a $500 million loan from the United States Department of Transportation.
The new bridge incorporates a “cable-stayed” design, in which the weight of the bridge deck is supported by steel cables affixed to two 515-foot towers. These towers are anchored almost 200 feet underground. The total length of the bridge is approximately 8,800 feet – less than 200 feet shorter than the Golden Gate Bridge. Nine thousand feet of structural steel and over 300,000 cubic yards of concrete were used in its construction.
Planning for the new bridge began in 2000, when POLB was evaluating options to either modify the existing two-lane Gerald Desmond Bridge, which opened in 1968, or build a new one based on the projected growth of the harbor. POLB sought public input during the planning phase and found that people wanted an iconic bridge, one that would add to the attractiveness of the Downtown skyline.
Construction of the new bridge began in January of 2013 and has been an intricate choreography, considering the heavy traffic on the adjacent Gerald Desmond Bridge as well as the heavy shipping activity in the harbor complex (“POLB had record years during the peak of the bridge’s construction,” said Kenagy) and constant work in the nearby oil refineries. “It was a bit like remodeling the interior of your home while you’re still living in it,” said Kenagy.
“The old bridge was what engineers call ‘functionally obsolete’,” said Kenagy. “It dropped a lane at the top and there was no traffic shoulder, so if an incident occurred at the top of the bridge, traffic would back up and emergency vehicles might have to drive all the way to the other side and come back the wrong way. The new bridge has safety shoulders on both sides, in addition to two vehicular lanes on each side throughout the length of the span.”
The new bridge is outfitted with state-of-the-art seismic safety features, including “seismic dampers,” which are 30 feet long and three feet wide, and function like giant shock absorbers. There are seismic sensors throughout the bridge which guide engineers in post-earthquake inspections.
Completing the on and off-ramp connections will be the final construction step before the bridge opens. POLB will hire a contractor to demolish the old bridge, which will be accomplished by either lowering pieces of it onto barges or trucking them out over the still-existing portions of the bridge.
After the new bridge is opened to vehicular traffic, finishing touches will be applied to the Mark Bixby Memorial Bicycle Pedestrian Path. Bixby, an avid cyclist and driving force behind the addition of the fully-protected path, passed away in 2011, just as his vision was coming to life.
Cyclists and pedestrians who cross over the bridge will encounter three observation decks along the way, where they can pause to take in the harbor views and get a close-up look at the mighty cables supporting the weight of the bridge’s center span.
“The new bridge is the fulfillment of everything we’ve been asking for,” said Kenagy. “It’s a source of pride for Long Beach, and an addition to the Downtown skyline that will serve for generations.”