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With two major projects wrapping up, rail takes center stage for port investment

Crews work on the Long Beach Container Terminal at Middle Harbor, one of the most advanced port terminals in the world, which is slated to be completed this year, according to Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero. Photo courtesy of the port.

Capital improvement projects are never-ending at the Port of Long Beach. Projects take years, sometimes decades, from concept to completion, can cost upward of a billion dollars and bring increased operational capacity and efficiency.

The Gerald Desmond Bridge replacement project is the port’s most recently completed large-scale investment. The nearly 2-mile long bridge was originally projected to cost $1 billion but the final price tag was nearly $1.5 billion.

The bridge has a clearance of 205 feet, 50 feet higher than the old bridge, which will allow larger container ships to pass beneath. As with its predecessor, about 15% of all imports into the U.S. travel across the new bridge.

“Imagine if the bridge had not opened in October,” port Executive Director Mario Cordero said, noting the port’s surge in cargo movement over the last 10 months would have caused untold traffic congestion on the old bridge, which had fewer lanes.

The next major project slated for completion is Middle Harbor, a $1.5 billion makeover of the Long Beach Container Terminal that began in 2011. The project is on pace to be completed this year and will have the ability to move twice as much cargo while producing half as much air pollution as the two terminals it is replacing.

With the capacity to move 3.5 million 10-foot equivalent cargo units annually, the single terminal by itself would rank as the sixth busiest port in the country, Cordero said. Upon completion, Middle Harbor will be the world’s most advanced container terminal, he added.

“Capital improvement projects are crucial to modernizing the Port of Long Beach and making it competitive,” Cordero said.

The port’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022 includes $329 million in capital expenditures, which accounts for 53% of its spending, according to spokesperson Lee Peterson. Over the next decade, the port plans to invest $1.6 billion in infrastructure.

The lion’s share of the port’s capital investment is centered on rail, with a goal of increasing the amount of cargo transported by train and decreasing the number of trucks on the road. A single locomotive can move hundreds of containers, while most trucks carry one, meaning rail has less impact on the environment.

The most expansive rail project at the port is the $870 million Pier B On-Dock Rail Support Facility. The expanded rail system is in the planning and engineering design phase and construction is scheduled to begin next year.

The Pier B project area encompasses 171 acres south of 12th Street, north of Pier B Street and west of the 710 Freeway. It will allow for the port to configure longer trains, keeping the facility competitive through efficiency as larger vessels begin to call on the port.

The ambitious project is expected to take a decade to be fully complete but will open in phases.

Construction is underway on a $25 million track access project on Piers G and J. The project will add a second, 9,000-foot-long rail line between the piers and is expected to be completed in March 2022.

A $40 million project slated to begin later this year on the Terminal Island Wye tracks will reduce switching conflicts by adding a new lead track on Pier T and two new storage tracks on Pier S. The project is expected to be completed in October 2023.

And finally, a fourth track is going to be added at Ocean Boulevard that will add 2,000 feet of track near the new bridge, an area that currently bottlenecks into three tracks. The $11 million project is set to begin next year with a completion expected in August 2023.

“Although the COVID-19 pandemic tested our resolve, we remain focused on the future by investing in strategic projects that will improve cargo flow, reliability and efficiency,” Cordero said. “As an international gateway for trade, the port is well positioned to endure economic challenges and assist in the nation’s economic recovery.”

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