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Made in China: Key Parts of New Calif. Bridge Won't be Made in America


"California avoided legal requirements to use domestic steel by not using federal funds for the job."

A new Bay Bridge will connect San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., by 2013. The bridge, which officials are calling 'the world's largest self-anchored suspension bridge,' will cost $7.2 billion when complete, but state decided not to apply for federal funding when the project began in 2006. Why?

According to a New York Times report in June, it was in part so they wouldn't have to buy more expensive American steel:

. . .because the “Buy America” provisos would probably have required purchasing more expensive steel and fabrication from United States manufacturers.

So, who's building this bridge and with who's material? American workers will provide much of the elbow grease, but the materials are made in China. NPR has more:

This assembly will be performed early next year by American labor. But the massive cable, key sections of the iconic tower and deck were all made in China, which is emerging as an infrastructure powerhouse in more places than San Francisco.

. . .

The decision to outsource the fabrication of key sections of the Bay Bridge was made about five years ago when a contractor offered alternate bids on the project, says Tony Anziano, a manager at the California Transportation Department.

"One proposing to do work domestically, one proposing to do the work internationally: There was a $400 million differential in that bid and in that case it would have required the work to go international," [Tony Anziano, a program manager at the California Department of Transportation,] said.

California avoided legal requirements to use domestic steel by not using federal funds for the job.

The steel contract went to a state-owned Chinese company, Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries, which had several advantages: modern production facilities, ships to deliver the steel and, of course, low-cost labor. A Chinese steel polisher makes about $12 a day.

American workers weren't happy at the time and still aren't. NPR reports the union's perspective on the outsourcing:

Bob LaVenture, a district director for the United Steel Workers Union, has opposed outsourcing this job.

"There is no way that American workers will be able to ever compete with $12 a day," he said. "It's just not right and it's not right for America."

But NPR went on to report Anziano as saying it wasn't just a money thing. It was capacity:

"In this particular case, we had full-time staff on site over in China — 24/7 — that monitored all aspects of fabrication work and performed their own quality-assurance testing," he said. "So we have a very high level of assurance about what we are getting."

The onus for the new Bay Bridge is to completely replace the current bridge that suffered damage during the 1989 earthquake. Seismic safety testing of the current bridge, according to the Times, showed officials that the bridge needed to rebuilt and equipped with more earthquake-resistant technology.

The Times calls to mind other times China has been called upon for larger projects on American soil: New York subway system renovation, renovation of the Alexander Hamilton Bridge and new Metro-North train platform near Yankee Stadium.

The new bridge is expected to open in 2013.

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