The 44-year-old Gerald Desmond Bridge wears diapers—netting that drapes the steel through the truss's underbelly to contain spalling concrete.

Connecting the nation's second-busiest port with the vital trade route of Interstate 710, it is a span on life support. "We spend up to $1 million a year just to keep it together," says Douglas Thiessen, managing director of engineering for the Port of Long Beach. With 85,000 motorists—70% of them commuters—using it daily and with no soft shoulders, it's also functionally obsolete.

Further, in an era of supersized ships, the Desmond Bridge's 155-ft underclearance allows for vessels carrying 9,500 twenty-foot-equivalent units (TEUs), or containers, even though the port's harbors can handle 13,000-TEU ships.

But in four years, port officials expect to show off a new bridge: an iconic cable-stayed structure that will be the icing on the cake of a $450-billion capital plan to make the port the "greenest—and with the most technologically advanced container terminal in the world," says port executive director Chris Lytle.

The Port of Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles, its rival and counterpart, do not fear losing significant container traffic to East Coast ports when the Panama Canal's third set of locks opens. Even without the ambitious capital program, "we're probably at about 50% to 60% of capacity without doing anything," says Lytle.

However, the intent is not to become complacent. "We're not doing this because of the canal," according to Lytle. "We're just developing infrastructure here so that shippers have complete choices."

Crown Jewel

The new bridge, the first major cable-stayed bridge in the state, will feature 500-ft-tall, diamond-shaped main towers supporting a 1,000-ft-long main span, says Jaime Freyre, head of U.S. operations with FCC Construction, a member of the design-build team led by Shimmick Construction Co. and including Impreglio S.p.A., with Arup North America Ltd. and Biggs Cardosa Associates Inc. as the subcontracting designers. The team went through a process that involved prequalification and a preliminary request for proposals, working with an initial design by the joint venture of Parsons Corp. and HNTB. Then, the JV beat out two competitors to win the best-value contract.The team has a $650-million contract to build the 6,345-ft-long new bridge. Construction starts next spring, with completion expected in 2016.

"We are looking for decreased maintenance costs and also a focus on seismic design," says Freyre. The two concrete box-girder approaches will use a mobile scaffolding system, and the main span will have steel girders plus a concrete deck," he adds. The new bridge also will have an extra 50 ft clearance.

Port officials had to clear a lot of hurdles to get their first design-build—and also their largest—contract under way. Designated as a "project of national significance" in the previous federal transportation program, the project had to wait for money from a voter-passed ballot, Prop. 1B, to get a significant boost. "For 10 years, it was 'who should fund what?' " recalls Richard Steinke, who retired after 14 years as the port's executive director in 2011. "Traditionally, we fund the port terminals, not bridges."

But various state agencies pitched in. In 2010, the California Transportation Commission approved the bridge replacement, launching a formal search for a design-build contractor. A contract is expected to be in place by the end of next year, with construction beginning in spring 2012 and completing by 2016.

Numerous funding sources will pay for the bridge's nearly $1-billion price tag. It will receive $500 million from state highway and transportation bond funds, $300 million from the federal government, $114 million from the port and $28 million from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The collaboration is unsurprising considering the bridge's vital role in the U.S. freight infrastructure: It carries 15% of all waterborne container cargo traveling through the nation. But thanks to a $4.5-billion, 10-year port capital program, much of the anticipated cargo traffic will increasingly travel on rail as well.

Digging In

Until the new bridge is completed, ships carrying up to 9,500 TEUs can call at the port. But as the new bridge takes shape and local transportation officials ponder ways to complete the northern missing link of I-710 through the San Gabriel Valley, "we're pushing more and more cargo over to rail," says Lytle.

A joint venture of Reyes Construction and Herzog Construction has a $123.5-million contract to build a container yard and the first phase of an intermodal rail yard at the port as part of the Middle Harbor development program. The $1.2-billion project will combine two aging container terminals into one of the world's most technologically advanced and greenest facilities, says Lytle. "That will take the facility up to 3.3 million TEUs in 2019, with a 50% reduction in air emissions at the same time."

The development was spurred by a 40-year, $4.6-billion lease signed with Orient Overseas Container Line (OOCL), the largest deal of its kind for a U.S. seaport. "A 25- to 30-year lease is more typical," notes Nick Sramek, president of the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners.

While the port's FY 2012 capital budget called for $636 million, its FY 2013 plan calls for $720 million, says Lytle. "We're out there making sure we've invested in the infrastructure in the right way. Phase one of the Middle Harbor program began last year, with the joint venture of Manson Construction and Connolly Construction working on almost $200 million worth in berth and wharf redevelopment. When all is completed, ships will be able to plug into the power grid at the wharves, rather than burning diesel. Manson last year completed a $40-million dredging project that widened the 76-ft-deep main channel and basin to improve access for fully loaded oil tankers and big container ships.

Construction of a rail-yard facility and on-dock support yard will increase rail capacity to 35% from 20%, says Lytle. As for the new terminal, "it will have the latest technology in computer-driven automation. It will operate almost totally diesel-free. We will get cargo off the ship, into the yard and out as quickly as possible by staged trains," he says.

Phase two continues the combination of the two terminals by filling an additional 40 acres and expanding the on-dock rail yard to 75,000 linear ft from 10,000 linear ft, say port officials. Ultimately, one 304-acre container terminal will be created, including 55 acres of newly created land from re-using dredged fill. Although a labor strike halted traffic to the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles for half of December, spokesman Daniel Yi says it did not impact construction.