Built in the 1960s, the Gerald Desmond Bridge was designed to meet the infrastructure needs of a pre-globalized world. At the time it was constructed, architects anticipated modest traffic across the bridge, mostly limited to commuters going to work at Long Beach Naval Shipyard.
The transformation of the American supply chain landscape from regional manufacturing to a reliance on coastal ports changed all that. The bridge is now part of a vital artery in the global trade system. Currently, 15% of imports that touch American shores travel across the Gerald Desmond Bridge. The bridge is designated as a National Highway System Intermodal Connector Route, and it’s part of the Federal Strategic Highway Network.
Despite this critical role in our supply chain, the bridge itself was outdated — and was quite literally falling apart in some places. The project to replace the existing bridge with a modern cable-stayed bridge broke ground in 2014 and is slated to be completed by the end of this year. Once completed, it will help the port of Long Beach and its sister port at Los Angeles increase capacity to meet current demand. For companies all along the supply chain, its opening will shift the flow of goods in potentially unexpected ways.
The new bridge will be designed to meet the needs of a global supply chain. With 68,000 vehicles crossing it every day — an estimated 18 million trips per year — this expansion is expected to make a big difference.
For a structure of such impressive size and scope, some of the changes that seem small will impact operations at the port the most. The replacement bridge will feature three lanes in each direction, plus safety lanes. The 1968 bridge only has two lanes in each direct and doesn’t feature safety lanes.
Currently, multiple lanes need to be shut down in the event of an accident, which creates incredible traffic backups. A collision that blocks the whole roadway, such as one involving a big rig, could clog this essential throughway for several hours. The ripple effect of trucks backed up along local routes and even back into the port creates backlog and causes shippers to miss targets.
In addition, the replacement bridge is designed with a gentler grade to further improve traffic flow. For vehicles frequently traveling over the bridge, this small adjustment in grade could drive serious cumulative reductions in fuel use over time.
The replacement bridge will be 50 feet higher than the existing span. That difference is critical because it will open up the port to new container ships, many of which are too tall for the old bridge. Increased demand has led to the development of larger container ships but the 1968 bridge wasn’t designed to accommodate these oversized vessels. This restrictive height has been cited as a reason for the port of Long Beach losing traffic between 2002 and 2013.
Ships that are too tall for the bridge are limited to docks that are located on the outside of the bridge. In one 2012 instance, the 12,562 TEU MSC Fabiola — largest container ship ever to enter the Port of Long Beach — was stopped from docking at the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) dock for this reason. The replacement bridge structure is designed for fully loaded container ships, expanding access to the port and making it more versatile.
The ports of Long Beach are Los Angeles among the busiest on earth. Hundreds of ships go underneath the Gerald Desmond Bridge every year. Meanwhile, hunks of concrete have been falling off the bottom of the bridge.
Structural problems in recent years have led to some unorthodox fixes to keep container ship traffic safe. Due to the amount of traffic it receives, the bridge started experiencing problems with premature decay — including large chunks of concrete breaking away from the underside of the structure. In 2004, nylon mesh “diapers” were installed to prevent falling concrete from impacting ships and their crews. That was 15 years ago.
The replacement bridge project will modernize the port by meeting realistic expectations for traffic. That will impact drivers, both commercial and commuters, as well as pilots and container ship crews.
Once construction on the replacement bridge is complete, traffic will be rerouted and demolition on the old bridge can begin in earnest. Increasing access to docks and intermodal connections throughout the port will likely lead to internal rerouting. This process may present some challenges for shippers moving in and out of the port for some time, which could cause slowdowns.
Having a partner at the port with experience navigating the local terrain and managing freight through construction could be beneficial for BCOs, merchandisers, and other logistics personnel in the years to come.