The New Gerald Desmond: A Bridge for Everyone

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While living in Venice Beach after graduating from college, I decided to bike to Long Beach to visit my parents in Belmont Shore. I am not an avid biker: this was a spur-of-the-moment adventure that took me along the beaches of the South Bay, through the bluffs of the Palos Verdes peninsula, into San Pedro. However, once on Gaffey Street in San Pedro I faced a dilemma: to reach downtown Long Beach, should I try to conquer my fear of heights and ride over the Vincent Thomas and Gerald Desmond Bridges, or should I take the less stressful but circuitous route around the port?

As it turned out, the decision was made for me: I approached the Vincent Thomas Bridge only to realize there was no way for pedestrians or bicyclists to use it. This confused me; from past visits to the port area when my father had been in the Navy, I knew that the Gerald Desmond Bridge had a protected sidewalk on its south side. On occasion I had even seen yard workers walking across the bridge to Terminal Island. But without any way for bikers to reach Terminal Island from the Vincent Thomas or Schuyler Helm Bridges, the Gerald Desmond Bridge’s sidewalk would not help me in my travels. The only alternative was a ten-mile detour up to Anaheim Street, where I battled hundreds of trucks through over seventy intersections. Instead of breathing in the cool, salty breeze of the Pacific Ocean along the California Coastal Trail, I was wheezing on the grit and diesel fumes of trucks and trains.

This memory comes to mind because the Port of Long Beach is currently seeking to replace the Gerald Desmond Bridge, and the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority is currently seeking to replace the Schuyler Helm Bridge. The crucial question is: who will these new bridges be designed to serve? Both infrastructure projects are supposed to improve efficiency and expand capacity for the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. The new bridges are slated to include additional travel lanes as well as “auxiliary lanes,” shoulders for emergency vehicle access during periods of congestion.

Sadly, while these proposed additions will expand capacity for trucks and cars, they provide nothing for pedestrians and bicyclists. This reflects a set of priorities: two of the most significant pieces of coastal infrastructure in Southern California are to be renovated, with little consideration for public access. What statement is made when the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, representing one of the largest employment centers in the region, are to remain accessible only by motor vehicle, even though the surrounding residential population lies within a distance easily covered on foot or by bike? This, in a context of concern for local air quality and global climate change, and in a city that seeks the title “most bicycle friendly city in the nation?”

It bears noting that the three bridges serving Terminal Island are either State Routes (SR 47, in the cases of the Vincent Thomas and Schuyler Helm Bridges) or an Interstate Freeway (I-710, in the case of the Gerald Desmond Bridge). With those designations come regulations as to how these bridges are to be designed and maintained. These regulations do not preclude pedestrian and bicycle elements, only that any such elements by designed appropriately for service and safety.

Compare this state of affairs in Long Beach with the Golden Gate Bridge, which links San Francisco and Marin County. This length of the United States 101 Freeway accommodates nearly one-hundred thousand cars a day and over ten million visitors annually. Pedestrians and bicyclists share two 10-foot-wide sidewalks that flank the six-lane roadway. These sidewalks serve tourists and commuters alike, contributing millions of dollars to the local economy while reducing congestion. In stark contrast, the Bay Bridge (rendering at right), a six and a half-mile-long length of the Interstate 80 freeway used daily by over two hundred and eighty thousand cars, trucks, and buses moving between San Francisco with the East Bay, currently lacks all pedestrian or bicycle infrastructure. However, by 2013, when the eastern portion of this bridge is replaced, a 15-foot-wide protected facility will allow commuters and tourists to cross the San Francisco Bay on foot or by bicycle.

Both the Gerald Desmond and Schuyler Helm Bridges qualify for replacement based on federal sufficiency standards, but the Vincent Thomas Bridge is concerned seismically sound since it underwent a structural retrofit in 1998. Were we to add bicycle and pedestrian lanes to the Schuyler Helm Bridge while maintaining them on the Gerald Desmond Bridge, two of the three connections to Terminal Island would be accessible without a motor vehicle. Given that both replacement projects are intended to result in new bridges designed to last a century, the final pedestrian and bicycle link could be created when the Vincent Thomas Bridge is eventually replaced. In the meantime, cyclists and pedestrians could traverse the port complex via the two new bridges in conjunction with the mile-long, elevated park currently under construction in Wilmington.

On September 28 at 3:30 p.m., there will be a special City Council meeting to discuss appealing the Environmental Impact Report certification for the Gerald Desmond Bridge replacement design as it relates to pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. Along these lines, it would be worthwhile to consider a similar appeal in regard to the Environmental Impact Report certification for the Schuyler Helm Bridge replacement design. How ironic that while other California communities are improving coastal access through investments in infrastructure, Long Beach officials are considering diminishing coastal access that doesn’t depend on the internal combustion engine. Now is the time for to continue our efforts toward making Long Beach one of the most bicycle (and pedestrian) friendly cities in the nation, by designing our bridges for everyone.

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