Finally.

After seven years and more than a billion dollars, the long-awaited “Wow” moment is ready to unfold. Long Beach’s new, spectacular cable-stay bridge will debut with “virtual” fanfare on Friday, Oct. 2, and will open to traffic three days later.

“It’s so exciting for us,” said Long Beach harbor commissioner and past president Bonnie Lowenthal. “And it’s exciting for the nation to have a modern bridge that will accommodate 15% of the nation’s cargo traffic.”

Dubbed the “Bridge to Everywhere” by city and Port of Long Beach leaders, the Gerald Desmond Replacement Bridge — it will get its own distinctive name later — was a very long time in the making.

Along the way, the construction created confusing detour routes and plenty of traffic delays. Motorists, surrounded by hulking container trucks, struggled to navigate the frequent narrow-lane slow-downs and the curves in hard-to-follow hairpin turns just to get to and from downtown Long Beach.

The whole thing wound up costing $1.46 billion and took two years longer than initially projected.

But with state-of-the-art seismic technology and a taller, wider span arching over the Port of Long Beach, it is being hailed as an engineering marvel by Long Beach Port Executive Director Mario Cordero.

“We can take a deep breath and, next Friday, look at this bridge and say, ‘Mission accomplished’ on a project of national significance,” Cordero said in a telephone interview.

It also will put Long Beach, both the city and its port, on the map.

“For Long Beach, it’s going to be a great shot in the arm,” said Frank Colonna, current president of the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners.

It will be the second highest cable-stay bridge in the nation. (The highest is the Ravenel Bridge in Charleston, South Carolina, which connects downtown Charleston to Mount Pleasant.)

“It’s the biggest infrastructure in our city,” Colonna said. “It will basically be a landmark for Long Beach, just like the Golden Gate is in San Francisco.”

And when its LED lights are turned on after dark (that won’t happen for another few weeks after the bridge opens), it should be seen as far away as Orange County to the south and downtown Los Angeles to the north.

The lights, Cordero said, will be computerized and programmable to change colors.

“On July 4, 2021, this bridge is going to be red, white and blue,” he said. “Aesthetically, this brings so much to the harbor complex but also to the community.”

Virtual opening

A virtual opening ceremony featuring truck and additional processions will be telecast over YouTube and other social media channels at 11 a.m. Friday, Oct. 2. It also can be viewed at newgdbridge.com and polb.com.

Due to coronavirus, there will be no public ceremony available.

But the bridge will officially open to commuters early in the morning on Monday, Oct. 5, after a lane changeover from the current Gerald Desmond span. The soon-to-be defunct Gerald Desmond Bridge will be demolished, piecemeal, over about two years.

Unlike its predecessor, the new bridge will feature three lanes in each direction, along with an emergency fourth lane and a protected lane for cyclists and pedestrians along the south side.

The former bridge had just two lanes in each direction.

“When a fender bender happened or someone ran out of gas, there was a complete stoppage on the bridge,” Cordero said.

The new, much wider structure should prevent those bottlenecks, he added.

Bridge history

The new structure is the latest in the line of three bridges over that part of the Long Beach harbor waterway.

Before the (old) Gerald Desmond opened in 1968, there was a floating pontoon bridge that connected downtown Long Beach to Terminal Island, home to the former Navy base. Built by the Navy around World War II, the bridge could open and close to allow ships to pass through.

Although intended to be temporary, the pontoon bridge — featured in the chase scene in the 1963 comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” — began operating in 1944 and lasted 24 years, until the Gerald Desmond came online.

Construction began on the original Gerald Desmond in the mid-1960s to replace the pontoon bridge.

Colonna, who had been a public health inspector on that bridge construction in 1966, was there for the original Desmond opening.

“It was a big event,” he said in a telephone interview. “One of the biggest we’d ever seen.”

The Gerald Desmond was 1.5 miles long and named after a former Long Beach city attorney and councilmember. The bridge was built to standards that said it would last for 50 years.

But by the 1990s, it was clear that the massive growth at the Port of Long Beach was putting a strain on the bridge’s ability to serve the increase in traffic.

“There were thousands of trucks every day and heavy traffic,” Colonna, who has also served on the City Council, said. The bridge “started spalling where concrete was coming down under it.”

Something had to be done.

New bridge plans begin

Former Mayor Bob Foster, who led the city during the bridge’s inception, said in a phone interview that he remembered the urgency to get a new bridge project underway.

So when he attended a transportation conference in the Bay Area and learned there was one slot left in California’s Design-Build Demonstration Program — which Foster said would result in faster work than a more traditional contracting process — he knew the Port of Long Beach had to pitch a replacement for the Gerald Desmond Bridge.

Foster said he had a “very contentious relationship” with officials at the Port of Long Beach at the time. Nonetheless, he told them about the program and urged them to apply.

In 2010, the California Transportation Commission approved the project for the program.

“That’s how it started,” Foster said, “and the port and I had a great relationship on this bridge. We were allies, and we really wanted to make this happen.

“And,” he added, “I think, by and large, they’ve done a good job.”

Bonnie Lowenthal was on the Long Beach City Council during those early years.

“I remember the first time Dick Steinke (former Port of Long Beach director) came in making the rounds of council members saying they had to replace the Gerald Desmond Bridge,” said Lowenthal, who was elected to the council in 2001. “It was all about safety, it was always about safety.”

A metal mesh “diaper” had been placed under the crumbling Gerald Desmond Bridge by then to catch the falling chunks of concrete. Not only was the two-lane bridge struggling to handle the truck traffic, at 155 feet high it was also not able to accommodate larger ships should the port further develop its inner harbor terminals.

The new bridge, meanwhile, provides a 205-foot clearance over the channel, allowing larger and greener ships to enter.

Costs skyrocketed

To be sure, the project has had its hiccups. When the California Transportation Commission approved the plan in 2010, officials expected the new bridge to cost $950 million and take five years to build.

It took seven. And the final cost was $1.46 billion.

But, Foster said, with a project of this magnitude, that’s only to be expected.

“With big infrastructure projects, particularly public infrastructure projects, delays and overruns are pretty normal,” he said. “It’s a great bridge. It’s the iconic bridge that we wanted.

“Obviously, it’s late, and it’s also more expensive,” Foster added, “but for something likely to last 75 years, I think it’s going to be a terrific product.”

And, at the end of the day, he said, that’s what matters.

“Five years from now, no one’s going to remember it cost more money than it was supposed to,” Foster said. “They’ll just be delighted with the product.”

Cordero, for his part, noted the particular difficulty on building anything in the harbor.

“Anytime you build anything in the harbor district,” he said, “there are oil pipes, utility connections, all these unforeseen things can be very costly.”

The project also launched in 2008-09 during what was a global recession.

Despite that, the plan moved forward.

“We decided we were going to go forward with two projects, the bridge and the Middle Harbor container terminal,” Cordero said. “Now, for the grand opening, the irony is that we’re in another crisis (with the coronavirus pandemic).”

People ask him how the Long Beach port doing, Cordero said. His answer: “In crisis, we build.”

“The bridge,” he said, “is symbolic of that.”

Construction and a light amid the pandemic

On Jan. 8, 2013, an official groundbreaking ceremony was held for the new bridge, with construction beginning in October 2014. More than 350 massive concrete pilings provided the foundations.

The project proved fascinating to those driving through the area. Long stretches of the elevated concrete could be seen hanging overhead, waiting to be attached to the next stretch of bridge roadway.

A website offered live webcam footage of the construction as it went forward.

Among the finishing touches were the state-of-the-art earthquake detection and protection elements. Seismic dampers — giant “shock absorbers” — are placed at key sections of the bridge, adding to the bridge’s resiliency during an earthquake.

The bridge also has 74 sensors that monitor movement, providing immediate reads to engineers to determine problem areas after a quake occurs. That information, officials say, will also prove useful for engineers as they design future bridges.

“It’s a magnificent endeavor,” Cordero said of the project. “For the 21st century, we will have the iconic (equivalent) to the Golden Gate Bridge now in Southern California, in Long Beach.”

And coming in what’s been a grim 2020, it could be just the needed boost many people need, Colonna said, referring to the pandemic.

“We’ve almost been on lockdown,” Colonna said. “People are eager to see something new, something eye appealing. People will look at that bridge and go, ‘Oh, wow.’”

By the numbers

Vertical clearance: 205 feet

Tower height: 515 feet

Cost: $1.46 billion

Years to construct: seven

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.