By Joseph Pooler and Miheala Stroe
The Port of Long Beach (POLB) is the second busiest container port in the U.S. after the Port of Los Angeles and one of the largest seaports in the world. The Port is currently redeveloping two aging shipping terminals into one of the world’s most advanced and greenest terminals—to be achieved through the $1.49 billion Middle Harbor Redevelopment Program. As a sub-consultant to Jacobs, Hill International, Inc. provided construction management services for the Pier E Container Yard/Intermodal Railyard (CY/IY) project, one of several concurrent projects comprising the third and final phase of the Middle Harbor Program.
Like many large programs, Middle Harbor has experienced major challenges during its lifecycle. These challenges range from underwater construction to COVID-19, and at times threatened the very viability of the program. But thanks to good management and teamwork, the project teams have been able to maintain progress and contain cost growth, so that the program’s final phase now approaches conclusion as a qualified success.
Prioritizing a Pressing Backlog
“All coastal projects can be complex,” says Hill Senior Program Manager Mihaela Stroe, PE, LEED AP BD+C, CCM. “Whenever you try to transform a large harbor, wharf, or pier, your earthworks can run into major obstacles because of the unpredictable dynamics of working underwater.” During the Middle Harbor Pier E Wharf and Backland project—one of the projects constructed concurrently with the Pier E CY/IY project—the construction team had to demolish existing infrastructure and infill the harbor. This work was delayed by major unknowns such as wet material at turnover grade, wicks unable to reach the specified depth, and structural issues during cyclopean-wall excavation. This delayed the Pier E CY/IY project and, in a domino effect, the entire Middle Harbor program.
“Originally, the estimated completion date for the Pier E project was December 2020,” Stroe goes on. “But it quickly became apparent we would not meet this date.” Stroe emphasizes the delay was unforeseeable, just one of the risks inherent in littoral construction. Despite the delay, the team, including Jacobs, Hill, Griffith Construction, Moffatt & Nichol, and Parsons worked with POLB to optimize the impacted schedule.
For example, when the tenant expressed concerns that the original “Early IY” area, planned to be completed in 600 days, would not provide sufficient operational track for storage track cars during construction of the remaining yard, Hill’s team identified opportunities for resequencing work activities and negotiated change orders with the contractor to double the original design rail yard capacity and accelerate work within the “Early IY “railyard. The resequencing methods and negotiations included, notably, the reduction of a change order to $350,000, and resulted in the delivery of the revised “Early IY” scope to the tenant within the original contractual duration. The remainder of the railyard was delivered in March 2021.
“Finishing the railyard in March 2021 allowed the tenant to commence operations with the entire railyard and start paying the lease on the property, while we’re still working on other elements of the program. It’s a real credit to the designer, the contractor, and POLB we were able to get this done despite all the issues that we had to overcome last year.”
Oil Pipes and More Change Orders
The Hill team also helped POLB keep the costs of other change orders low. During demolition, for example, the contractor encountered several unforeseen asbestos pipes, duct banks, pull boxes, and oil pipes, all of which had to be protected in place or removed. Adding to the complexity, third-party oil companies had to remove some of the pipes or concrete-slurry backfill. By proactively coordinating with the oil companies, proposing viable technical solutions for protecting the pipes, and maintaining the pace of construction, Hill helped keep changes to a minimum and prevented delays from the third-party utility work, saving time and money.
“Change orders for the project total only $13 million, or 9% of the project cost,” says Stroe. “Given all the complexities of the Pier E project, all the challenges it has run into so far, and the fact that a large number of the change orders were due to unforeseen circumstances such as asbestos and contaminated soil, this figure evidences excellent performance on the part of the whole team.”
Coordination and COVID-19
In addition to the pressing backlog and unknown utilities, challenges related to the scale of the Middle Harbor Program threatened the project. Three contractors were regularly working at the same time and place on different program components: the Wharf and Backland, an Administrative Building, and CY/IY. All workers needed access to the same road, a road requiring work of its own.
“Coordinating between multiple work crews can be hard enough,” says Stroe. “Constant relocation of the access road and rearrangement of security between the projects and various construction areas complicated the coordination even more”
Along with the rest of the management team, it is Hill’s responsibility to coordinate between all parties involved on the Pier E project. With careful communication, construction oversight, and a rigorously maintained project schedule, the team’s efforts helped clear the way for all upcoming work actions so work could proceed as scheduled.
However, it took more than coordination to address the challenges imposed by COVID-19 in the early months of 2020. Project personnel got sick, including the operators of specialized equipment. This led to critical tasks being delayed, threatening project progress even further.
“The whole project organization had to collaborate to combat the coronavirus,” says Stroe. “POLB, the management team, and the contractor did an excellent job putting together notification reports each time a new person got sick, communicating positive cases of COVID and an exposure evaluation of the surrounding personnel as quickly as possible. This kept all stakeholders up to date and helped limit the transmission of the virus. The Port was even able to offer rapid testing within the port facilities to workers.” These actions helped prevent more detrimental impacts to the project and protected the health of employees, stakeholders, and their communities.
The intermodal railyard concluded in March 2021, earlier than the rest of the project. “Despite all the challenges, we were able to prioritize work and achieve great progress on the railyard project, the completion of which marked a critical milestone for the whole Middle Harbor Program,” says Stroe. “It’s a credit to the whole team that we put the railyard in a position to be completed by March. Now, Long Beach Container Terminal can begin using the railyard and paying their lease to POLB. When Middle Harbor is complete later in 2021, POLB will have its fully automated terminal. Then, most importantly, shipping companies from all over the world will start operating at the efficient and green terminal, maintaining the steady flow of goods into and out of the U.S.”
Projects like Pier E are complex, and sometimes even the most rigorously planned projects will run up against uncontrollable and unfavorable circumstances. But even in situations that seem to compromise a project’s very constructability, effective project management can help owners overcome challenges, win back valuable time, and save money.