In the shadow of the $1 billion Gerald Desmond Bridge Replacement Project, work is underway to replace another aging span that connects Terminal Island to the mainland.
The other bridge under construction is the Commodore Schuyler F. Heim Bridge, a vertical-lift span that opened in 1948 – 15 years before the Vincent Thomas Bridge and 20 years before the Gerald Desmond Bridge. Named for the commanding officer of the Terminal Island Navy Base during World War II, the smaller span is as important as its more visible counterparts to the transportation network that links the nation’s busiest harbor complex to the rest of the nation.
“The historic Schuyler Heim Bridge is vital to goods movement in and out of the ports and throughout the state,” said Judy Gish, spokeswoman for the California Department of Transportation, the agency building the Heim Bridge Replacement Project. “This project ensures that it will continue to serve the people of California for decades to come.”
Located in the heart of the harbor on the Long Beach side, the Heim Bridge fills a three-quarter mile stretch of SR-47 and is the only north-south link for commuter and truck traffic between Terminal Island and the rest of Southern California. And each of the island’s four bridges – three for vehicles, one for trains – matters when nearly 20 percent of containerized cargo that moves through the Port of Long Beach comes and goes through the island. Harbor-wide, nearly half of the more than 14 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) that crossed San Pedro Bay docks in 2012 moved through Terminal Island.
After years of shoring up the aging span, Caltrans broke ground in 2011 on its $210 million project to build a new Heim Bridge that meets current seismic standards. Safety features include widening the bridge’s three lanes in each direction to 12 feet and adding shoulders up to 10 feet wide on both sides. The work will be done in six stages and is due to be completed in 2017.
The project also will add a 12-foot-wide auxiliary lane on the southbound side. The extra space will ease traffic congestion and allow for construction of a proposed four-lane expressway connection, an Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority project that is currently facing legal challenges and has yet to be funded.
The new bridge won’t have the moveable span that distinguishes the existing emerald truss-and-tower structure as the tallest vertical-lift bridge in the western United States. Instead, it will be a fixed structure that will eliminate vessel-related traffic delays and closures due to routine maintenance or mechanical repairs.
That’s welcome news, said Fred Johring, President of Golden State Express, a harbor-based trucking company, and Golden State Logistics, a warehouse operation. “Time is money in the trucking business,” said Johring, who is also Chairman of the Harbor Trucking Association. “When drivers are battling traffic and hours of service requirements, even a 10-minute delay can be costly.”
Still operational for now, the 820-ton lift offers 165-foot clearance to vessels navigating the Cerritos Channel. The new bridge will lower navigational clearance to 46.9 feet, which will not accommodate all vessels able to pass beneath the existing span. The new height will accommodate the Port’s new high-tech fireboats. It does not affect large cargo ships that have always been too big to go under the bridge.
Due to its age and design, the Heim Bridge became eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Ultimately, the old bridge, which has enjoyed numerous television and film cameos, will be demolished.
During construction, at least one traffic lane in each direction will remain open, but there will be occasional detours and closures. To minimize the impact, the Port of Long Beach is coordinating with partner agencies, tenants, trucking organizations, labor and the general public to issue weekly construction alerts in advance. Sign up to receive the weekly alerts here.
Those alerts are even more critical given all the construction going on in the harbor. They include work on all vehicular connections to Terminal Island: a replacement for the Gerald Desmond Bridge and a pending project to add a second lane connecting SR-47 to the northbound 110 Freeway at the west end of the Vincent Thomas Bridge on the Los Angeles side. No work is pending for the fourth bridge and only rail connection, the Badger Avenue Bridge, a vertical-lift, double-track span rebuilt in 1997 and located just west of the Heim Bridge.
Advance notice of any disruption is crucial to keeping traffic and cargo flowing, said Eric Shen, Director of Transportation Planning for the Port of Long Beach. “There will be times when work involving all three bridges overlaps. We’re doing extensive outreach to keep everyone informed.”