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Bridge, rail and terminal investments keep Long Beach port competitive in world market

The the new Long Beach bridge is open to vehicular traffic. The Long Beach Container Terminal is pictured in the background. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Remaining competitive in the world of goods movement is a never-ending quest for higher capacity and efficiency—while simultaneously reducing emissions—for port authorities around the world. To that end, among other ongoing projects, the Port of Long Beach celebrated the grand opening of the Gerald Desmond Bridge Replacement Project.

Over a decade in the making, the new bridge has a clearance of 205 feet, 50 feet higher than the 1968 Gerald Desmond Bridge. At nearly 2 miles long, the new structure has a more gradual gradient, which is easier on trucks hauling shipping containers. As with the outdated structure, about 15% of all imports into the U.S. will travel across the new bridge.

“Projects like the bridge, they’re investments not only to trade efficiency, but also to amplify productivity,” Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero said. “The bridge allows us to make sure the cargo trucks of the era are able to navigate the corridor in a more efficient manner.”

Originally expected to cost $1 billion, the nearly $1.5 billion bridge consists of three lanes in both directions, an upgrade from the old bridge, which had three lanes in one direction and only two lanes in the other.

With no emergency lanes, if there was an accident or stalled vehicles on the old bridge, traffic would bottleneck and slow to a crawl. The new bridge has emergency lanes in both directions.

Aside from easing traffic across the bridge, the increased height further makes the Port of Long Beach “big ship ready,” Cordero said. When the Gerald Desmond was constructed 52 years ago, container ships were carrying about 8,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEUs. Today, ships have more than doubled in size, capable of carrying more than 21,000 TEUs.

Once the old bridge is removed, depending on configuration, vessels carrying up to around 16,000 TEUs will be able to travel into the back channel under the new structure. Being able to accommodate larger ships throughout the entire port makes it more appealing to shippers determining where to berth for unloading.

“There is a part two to this project: prudent work to widen the back channel to accommodate bigger vessels,” Cordero said, adding that officials hope the increase in larger ships calling on the port will equate to more cargo moving through the complex annually.

The old Gerald Desmond was built with an expected lifespan of 50 years, while the new bridge was designed to last at least 100 years.

The next major project on the port’s docket is the Pier B On-Dock Rail Support Facility, the centerpiece of its $1 billion rail program. As ships grow larger, Cordero said it’s important to remember that trains are getting longer and the port must be able to accommodate.

While most trucks transport a single shipping container, rail can move hundreds at once. The expanded Pier B rail system would allow for the assembly of trains up to 10,000 feet long, which equates to nearly 1,000 TEUs per trip.

By allowing more containers to be transported by rail, Cordero said the project is going to have significant positive impacts, including reducing truck traffic on the 710 Freeway.

“The best environmental option for moving containers is by rail, as opposed to trucks on the freeway,” Cordero said. “[The project] will lower our footprint with regard to the environmental impact of container movement.”

The project encompasses 171 acres south of 12th Street, north of Pier B Street and west of the 710 Freeway. The port will need to acquire some properties already occupied on the westside, which has caused some pushback from the business community.

The port is still in the design process and is navigating the National Environmental Policy Act process, during which the Environmental Protection Agency evaluates environmental impacts before the project can be approved. The local environmental impact report was approved by the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners in January 2018.

The estimated price tag for the rail project is $870 million but if it’s anything like the bridge the cost could end up being over $1 billion.

The project is not expected to be completed for over a decade, with the first arrival, departure and storage tracks expected to be completed in 2024, doubling the rail yard’s capacity. Additional tracks are expected to come online in 2030 and the full project is slated for completion in 2032.

The third lynchpin in the port’s competitive future is its Middle Harbor Redevelopment Project. Construction of this $1.5 billion terminal makeover began in 2011. The 10-year construction program consists of combining two operationally obsolete terminals into one of the world’s most advanced.

Phase one of the Middle Harbor project was completed in 2016, the second phase opened in 2017 and the full project is expected to be completed next year.

Dubbed the Long Beach Container Terminal, upon completion, the site will have an annual capacity of 3.3 million TEUs. In addition to increased capacity, the terminal utilizes electric-powered equipment, making it one of the world’s cleanest container terminals, according to the port.

At 4,200 feet long, Middle Harbor can service three ships at once, all plugged into shoreside electricity at berth, thereby reducing emissions. The terminal has its own on-dock rail yard designed to handle 1.1 million TEUs per year, further reducing emissions from truck traffic.

“The Port of Long Beach is in a competitive arena … because my colleagues on the East Coast and in the Gulf have done a good job investing in their ports,” Cordero said. “Shippers have choices. But as our brand indicates, we’d like to see that we are the port of choice.”

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