LONG BEACH - Port authorities approved Long Beach's largest infrastructure project in a generation Monday with a $1.1 billion plan to replace the Gerald Desmond Bridge.
It took a decade to work out the details and secure funding for the project, which is expected to break ground by early 2012.
"Competition is becoming a very serious issue," said Harbor Commissioner Mike Walter before the plan was unanimously approved by the port's governing body.
"We need to make this investment."
Barring a legal challenge to the city or state, engineering work could begin within months, followed by utility work and eventual groundbreaking.
Plans to replace the Gerald Desmond began around 2000, when steep increases in annual cargo volumes began causing gridlock and severe wear-and- tear to the bridge, which opened in 1968.
By 2005, the bridge was accommodating more than 15 percent of the nation's total seaborne trade - supporting a claim by port officials that it was "The Bridge to Everywhere."
The massive environmental impact report, required before any work can begin, was several hundred pages, filled with an analysis of everything from air pollution impacts to the effect on bats that nest on the current bridge's underside.
Unlike other recent infrastructure projects to modernize marine terminals and expand railyards, the bridge plan has enjoyed wide support by construction contractors, ocean carriers, and even some of the 70,000 commuters who use the span every day.
"I support it on the basis of the safety enhancements this provides for the general motoring public such as myself," said Stacy Jones, a resident of San Pedro who crosses the bridge twice each day.
Port authorities expect the project - funded by a mix of local, state and federal funds - to employ about 4,000 annually for six years.
The replacement will be taller than the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro, wider than the existing Desmond and less shaky than either roadway, which were built in 1963 and 1968, respectively.
The bridge will largely follow the old route taking commuters and truckers over the container yards and shipping lanes east of Terminal Island but with more lanes and redesigned roads connecting to the Long Beach (710) Freeway and Pico Avenue.
Workers will put the bridge up just feet from the current span, and when construction is complete, the old bridge will be torn down piece by piece.
While it's likely to take more than a year to break ground, engineering and utility work is expected to begin within a couple of months.
To get the ball rolling, port authorities are hosting a workshop at 10 a.m. today to explain contracting opportunities. The hearing will be held at port headquarters, 925 Harbor Plaza in Long Beach, and broadcast live at www.polb.com.