By Samantha Mehlinger - Staff Writer
October 8, 2013 – The Gerald Desmond Bridge Replacement project is estimated to be $163.5 million, or about 15 percent, over budget, according to the port’s spokesperson for the project, John Pope. Similar to the issues with the Middle Harbor Redevelopment project, much of the bridge project’s cost overruns are caused by problems associated with relocating oil wells and utility lines to clear the way for the bridge’s foundation.
The Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners was slated to vote on increasing the $1.1 billion budget approved in April to $1,263,500,000 on October 7, but port staff removed the item from the agenda to do some “fine tuning,” Pope told the Business Journal. He said the matter could be addressed as soon as the commission’s October 21 meeting. “We don’t expect that the numbers are going to change dramatically,” he added.
According to Pope, about $68.5 million of the estimated increase is related to a contingency for oilfield and utility relocation efforts. In the original budget, the port allotted about $175 million for oil-well related issues, Pope said.
“What nobody involved in the project could have anticipated was the extent of the challenges that would be involved with clearing the ground, with these oil operations that have taken place over the last 100 years that, essentially, have created a very complicated situation down there underneath the ground,” Pope said.
“A little bit of the backstory is that 6,000 oil wells were drilled in this general area to tap into the Wilmington oilfield,” he explained. Over the years, some of these oil wells were abandoned – sometimes sealed, others sealed to outdated standards and occasionally not sealed at all, without any record of their location left behind. “There was no GPS mapping back when those were abandoned, and nobody really thought it would matter in the future,” he added.
Other wells were recorded, but subsidence – sinking of the earth sometimes due to pumping oil – caused some to sink well below their documented location. And, in other cases, oil wells were not capped to modern standards and had to be resealed.
Oil isn’t the only problem – undocumented and abandoned utility lines also interfered with progress. “In addition to these vertical [oil] casings, you had horizontal utility lines crisscrossing all this property. The challenge was to identify which lines were which,” Pope described. Port staff had to identify the owners of abandoned lines to ensure they were inactive, and some active lines had to be rerouted.
The project’s timeline was affected as well. “It’s been a major undertaking over the last two years, which was longer than we thought. Some of the individual wells that our experts estimated would take a period of weeks [to address] have sometimes taken months,” Pope said.
All of this work must be done, he emphasized, to ensure that the replacement for the Gerald Desmond Bridge has solidly placed, safe foundations. These foundations are to extend 200 feet below the surface.
The remaining costs associated with the $163.5 million increase are to become clearer as staff finalizes its report for the harbor commission. Some other costs include an additional $3 million needed to demolish the bridge, which Pope attributes to inflation; because the bridge is behind schedule, costs for labor and materials may be higher than anticipated when the time comes to demolish it.
The cost of the design and build contract with joint venture firm SFI (made up of Shimmick Construction Company Inc., FCC Construction S.A. and Impregilo S.p.A.) remains the same at $649.5 million, according to Pope.
The “massive undertaking for the oil work” and groundwork necessary to prepare the area for the new bridge is nearing completion, Pope said. The next step is building the new bridge, which is designed to accommodate more road traffic and to allow larger vessels to pass beneath it, after which the old Gerald Desmond Bridge may be demolished.