See Long Beach’s Signature Bridge Under Construction

See Long Beach’s Signature Bridge Under Construction

Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

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Standing on a tiny platform hundreds of feet above the Port of Long Beach, Duane Kenagy peered out at the bridge that has for the last several years been his life’s work.

“This is a massive undertaking,” he said, surveying the concrete and steel, the ships and containers below.

They looked a bit like toys, neatly arranged in rows. But, of course, this wasn’t the case.

We were looking down at real stuff — millions of dollars’ worth — bound for destinations around the country. And it had to get there from the port somehow.

That’s why Mr. Kenagy was there: to oversee the replacement of the Gerald Desmond Bridge, a $1.47 billion construction project that’s been underway since 2013 and is set to be complete in the middle of next year.

“We’re in the homestretch now,” he said this week.

The original Gerald Desmond Bridge, which carries the 710 freeway from downtown Long Beach over the port’s inner harbor to Terminal Island, was designed and built in the 1960s, before containerization had fully transformed shipping. Over its years of use, it has become functionally obsolete, officials said — even as trucks continue to rumble across, bringing 15 percent of the nation’s incoming waterborne cargo.

The replacement bridge will expand that capacity. It’s just one part of a $4 billion, 10-year port improvement plan and includes a designated bike and pedestrian path with scenic overlooks.

Mr. Kenagy served as our primary tour guide. While we took an elevator up and up, to the top of one of the towers along the bridge’s length, he explained that some of the bridge’s most innovative features were actually built into its foundation, which extends 17 stories underground.

In addition to special hinges, joints and gigantic concrete piles made to move in the event of an earthquake, the bridge was also outfitted with 77 accelographs to monitor seismic activity and transmit that data.

[Read more about how buildings can be designed to withstand earthquakes.]

John Wallace, a professor at U.C.L.A. who specializes in earthquake engineering, told me that back when the original bridge was built, there was really no way to design bridges for seismic safety. During the big earthquakes in the decades that followed, bridges failed.

Today, things are different, he said: “It’s like night and day.”

So when officials have the rare opportunity to spend a billion and a half dollars constructing what they say will be a signature bridge for Southern California, Professor Wallace said it’s also an unusual chance to gather real-time information outside a lab setting.

“Projects like this — and really tall buildings — when we instrument them and monitor them in time, they’re unique opportunities to look at the response before earthquakes occur and measure afterward,” he said. “We get information that allows us to improve our knowledge and designs in the future.”

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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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