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Shape Up and Ship Out


The first segment of a tower for the new bridge at the Port of Long Beach is aglow during a pile cap pour. The existing Gerald Desmond Bridge, in the background, will be demolished once the new bridge is complete. Photo courtesy of Port of Long Beach/Jonathan Alcorn

The first segment of a tower for the new bridge at the Port of Long Beach is aglow during a pile cap pour. The existing Gerald Desmond Bridge, in the background, will be demolished once the new bridge is complete. Photo courtesy of Port of Long Beach/Jonathan Alcorn

The original Panama Canal set the global standard for the size of large cargo ships – known as the Panamax standard – a size that few ships exceeded until quite recently. But the rise of containerized shipping since the 1970s has made much larger cargo vessels practical and desirable. The Panama Canal expansion will allow ships with much larger capacities to transit the canal.

The opportunity of providing a port for those ships and the business they carry has inspired massive renovation projects at ports around the U.S. On the East Coast and Gulf Coast, port officials are hoping to attract the new, larger Panama traffic from Asia, and to fill those ships with more U.S. exports through the canal to Asia and the west coast of South America. On the West Coast, they’re enlarging and improving their capabilities in the hopes of keeping the shipping customers they now have, and serving vessels that are too big even for the enlarged Panama Canal.

Port projects are large and multi-faceted. They include dredging harbor channels to accommodate the deeper ships, enlarging piers for longer ships, enlarging cranes and gantries to unload wider ships, increasing the capacity of warehouse and terminal facilities including transferring containers from ships to trains and trucks (intermodal), as well as improving access roads, bridges and tunnels that feed the ports.

So many ports are expanding their capacity that there has been a boon for contractors on all coasts, and AGC members are building some of the biggest and most challenging of these projects.

The ports of Seattle and Tacoma already get a significant portion of shipping traffic from Asia. Their channels are naturally deep enough for the big ships, but they can only dock a few large ships at a time. To increase capacity, Tacoma has already rebuilt its Pier 3 and demolished Pier 4. They are preparing to rebuild Pier 4 in alignment with Pier 3, for a combined berth 3,000 feet long.

A bit further south, the Port of Oakland, California can already handle ships as large as 14,000 TEU (20-ft equivalent unit), but the port is investing in improved landside facilities.

“The Port of Oakland has a major development under way,” says port Communications Director Mike Zampa. “It’s our effort to improve capabilities and service to our shippers, our customers.” It involves improving the site of the old Oakland army base with new railroad, warehouse, and transload facilities. The former base is being linked to the national rail network. It is being configured to handle bulk goods – Midwestern grain, for example – and transfer them into containers for overseas shipments, as well as improving intermodal handling of containers.

The mammoth ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are undergoing even bigger changes. These two ports facing each other across Long Beach Bay are the two busiest ports in the country, and account for 40 percent of imports entering the continental U.S. The port of Los Angeles has several projects initiated over the past five years totaling more than $1 billion, including a $370 million Main Channel Deepening Project that will ensure 53-foot depth access – deeper than New Panamax.

The Port of Long Beach is doing about $4.5 billion in improvements, including a new mega-terminal and a new bridge. The existing Gerald Desmond Bridge, a steel arch bridge built in the early 1960s, connects Terminal Island – the heart of the harbor – to the interstate highway. An estimated 15 percent of the container traffic entering the U.S. goes across the Gerald Desmond Bridge, in addition to automobile traffic in and out of the harbor. But the clearance for ships passing under the bridge is too low for New Panamax ships, so the bridge needs to be raised.

The new bridge, being built just north of the existing one, is destined to become an iconic structure. It is the first cable-stayed bridge for vehicular traffic in California and one of the few in the U.S. It is being built by SFI, a joint venture that includes AGC of California member Shimmick Construction, Spain’s FCC, and Italy’s Impreglio.

In addition to providing 200-ft clearance underneath for large ships, it will increase the bridge’s vehicular traffic capacity from two lanes to three in each direction, and add bicycle and pedestrian lanes.

“It’s a river of trucks when the trucks are running,” says SFI Director Bill Corn, “but we’ve got some pretty nice innovations, like dedicated U-turns, to make sure that the truck flow never stops.”

The construction involves several innovative techniques. One of the major design challenges is the elevation. Traffic has to be raised from 10 feet above sea level to 205 feet. The total length of the project is 8,000 feet, with 37 spans of elevated approaches to the 2,000-ft main span. It is supported on hundreds of piles cast into very wet ground.

“There are artesian conditions,” explain Corn, “where the water pressure in the lower aquifers is higher than the head pressure where we’re installing. There’s about 20 feet of head difference at the piles construction location.” They are placing CIDH (cast in drilled holes) piles fully cased with temporary steel casing – “What we call a ‘can,’” says Corn. A 26-ft length of can is oscillated into the ground as soil is being excavated from within the casing. They keep adding additional cans going down to form a continuous cylindrical hole-support 170 feet deep. Then the pile can be poured,
pulling out the cans as the pour rises. “We believe it’s the best quality you can get for this type of construction,” adds Corn.

A major innovation employed in this project was tip-grouting these piles. Because there is so much water in the ground, CalTrans normally requires very wide, very deep piles. “You [effectively] get no end-bearing capacity with a pile under water,” comments Corn, “because there was no way to test the capacity of it. We developed a system that works really well, and optimizes capacity of piles while maximizing confidence in the design.”

SFI casts the pile with tubes that run through it down to the bottom of the hole. Then they pump grout through the tubes into the bottom, and pressurize it to 500 psi. They keep pumping until the ground will not take any more grout, ensuring that bottom is consolidated material. With confidence in the bearing capacity of the bottom of the hole, the pile does
not need to be oversized simply to account for the unknowable. “It reduces either the diameter or the length by a significant amount. This is new for California. I don’t think people are giving this the attention it deserves.”

They have currently completed about 50 percent of the CIDH piles and are starting to build the columns for the approach spans. About 60 percent of the columns are hollow – “they’re basically like a vertical box culvert” – a great advantage in high seismic conditions. “If you were to build it solid, the weight of it would create a tremendous moment at the foundation level during an earthquake.”

The huge pylons that will hold up the main span of the bridge will eventually rise 500 feet tall. The framing of the bridge deck immediately surrounding the pier will be hung, and then suspended by the cablestays. Then the concrete decking will be placed. Then, the gantries get advanced and the next sections hung. Completion is expected in 2018.

On the east side of the canal, ports are eager to lure in the bigger ships coming from Asia and to send exports out through the canal to the west coast of South America.

The port of Houston, Texas is the largest on the Gulf Coast. Port officials here have a long-term plan to improve container handling and storage that is already under way.

For Houston, it’s not just about the Panama Canal. “We anticipate we’ll have more business,” says Roger Hoh, the port’s director – project and construction management, “but we already have a lot of business. Even though the Panama Canal will hopefully increase it.”

The channels accessing two major terminals, Bayport and Barbour’s Cut, are being deepened to 45 feet deep to match the federal channel at the harbor mouth. Both terminals are being rehabbed.

TEXO member McCarthy Building Company, Houston Division has recently completed the upgrade of the 1,300-ft long Wharf #1 at Bayport to support 100-gauge wharf cranes. The giant gantry cranes were custom built and shipped from Korea, a load so large that it could not go through the Suez Canal and had to be sailed around the southern tip of Africa.

Trans-Global Solutions, an AGC of Southeast Texas member, is revamping Container Yard 6 North at Bayport Terminal, a 25-acre site that requires 18-in-thick concrete to support the great weight of the stack containers waiting for shipment.

Further East, the Port of New Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, is making a major effort to accommodate bigger ships and more cargo. They are deepening the Mississippi River channel, expanding the Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal, and transforming a 12-acre rail yard into a modern intermodal rail facility.

The channel is being deepened from 45 feet to 50 feet, partially as a result of the most recent version of the Water Resources Reform & Development Act (WRRDA), in which the federal government will assume financial responsibility for maintaining the depth of the channel on an on-going basis.

The port’s Director of External Affairs Matt Gresham notes that while “the focus is generally on containerized cargo as it pertains to the Panama Canal expansion, the deeper water will greatly benefit bulk cargo and break-bulk cargo, as well. The Lower Mississippi River has five ports, which support the export of 60 percent of the nation’s grain, 20 percent of petroleum products and more than 20 percent of coal exports.”

The Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal has already been expanded to handle 640,000 TEUs annually, including installation of two custom-designed 100-gauge gantry cranes that can reach across 19 rows of containers on wider ships.

The terminal’s capacity will be increased to 840,000 TEUs with completion of the Intermodal Rail facility, a project being built by Hard Rock Construction, a Louisiana AGC member. The $25 million dollar project will feature electric rubber tire gantry cranes to improve container loading and unloading efficiency. It is expected to be completed in 2016. ◆