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Calif. getting ‘impressive’ bridge, made in China

By David Barboza
New York Times / June 26, 2011

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SHANGHAI — Talk about outsourcing.

At a sprawling manufacturing complex here, hundreds of Chinese laborers are now completing work on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Next month, the last four of more than two dozen giant steel modules — each with a roadbed segment about 50 yards long — will be loaded onto a huge ship and transported 6,500 miles to Oakland. There, they will be assembled to fit into the eastern span of the new Bay Bridge.

The assembly work in California, and the pouring of the concrete road surface, will be done by Americans. But construction of the bridge decks and the materials that went into them are a Made in China affair. California officials say the state saved hundreds of millions of dollars by turning to China.

The new structure, expected to open to traffic in 2013, will replace a bridge that has never been quite the same since the 1989 Bay Area earthquake.

“They’ve produced a pretty impressive bridge for us,’’ Tony Anziano, a program manager at the California Department of Transportation, said a few weeks ago. He was touring the 1.2-square-mile manufacturing site that the Chinese company created to do the bridge work.

China, in its continual move up the global economic value chain — from cheap toys to Apple iPads to commercial jetliners — now aims to be the world’s civil engineer. On the reputation of showcase projects like Beijing’s Olympic-size airport terminal and the mammoth hydroelectric Three Gorges Dam, Chinese companies have been hired to build copper mines in the Congo, high-speed rail lines in Brazil, and huge apartment complexes in Saudi Arabia.

In New York City, Chinese companies have won contracts to help renovate the subway system, refurbish the Alexander Hamilton Bridge over the Harlem River, and build a new Metro-North train platform near Yankee Stadium. As with the Bay Bridge, US union labor would carry out most of the work done on American soil.

American steelworker unions have disparaged the contract by accusing the state of California of sending good jobs overseas and settling for what they deride as poor-quality Chinese steel. Industry groups in the United States and other countries have raised questions about the safety and quality of Chinese workmanship on such projects. Indeed, China has had quality control problems ranging from tainted milk to poorly built schools.

But executives and officials who have awarded the various Chinese contracts say their audits have convinced them of the projects’ engineering integrity. And they note that with the full financial force of the Chinese government behind its infrastructure companies and the monumental scale of the work, the prices bid are hard for private industry elsewhere to beat.

At $7.2 billion, the Bay Bridge will be one of the most expensive structures ever built. But California officials estimate that they will save at least $400 million by having so much of the work done in China. (California issued bonds to finance the project and will look to recoup the cost through tolls.)

California authorities say they had little choice but to rebuild major sections of the bridge, despite repairs made after the 1989 earthquake caused a section of the eastern span to collapse onto the lower deck. Seismic safety testing persuaded the state that much of the bridge needed to be overhauled and made more quake-resistant.

Eventually, the California Department of Transportation decided to revamp the western span of the bridge (which connects San Francisco to Yerba Buena Island) and replace the 2.2-mile eastern span (which links Yerba Buena to Oakland).

On the eastern span, officials decided to build a suspension bridge with a complex design. The span will have a single, 525-foot tower, anchored to bedrock and supported by a single, enormous steel-wire cable that threads through the suspension bridge.

A joint venture between two American companies, American Bridge and Fluor Enterprises, won the prime contract for the project in early 2006. Their bid specified getting much of the fabricated steel from overseas, to save money.

California decided not to apply for federal funding for the project because the “Buy America’’ provisos would probably have required purchasing more expensive steel and fabrication from US manufacturers.

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