The Made-in-China Bay Bridge Continues to Cost California

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Jun 09 2014 |

Wish we could say we were surprised.

The decision to hire an inexperienced company from China to build key parts of the suspension span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge will “haunt the new span and the traveling public for generations to come.”

Those are the findings in a lengthy investigative report published on Sunday by the Sacramento Bee chronicling the faulty construction of the bridge’s suspension span. As the story notes, the selection of Shanghai Zhenhua Port Machinery Co. Ltd (ZPMC) to build steel sections of the bridge was plagued from the start, with significant quality control lapses causing serious delays and leading to major cost overruns.

The costs from the shoddy bridge construction aren’t yet over, either. Several experts — some of whom supervised the construction — told the Bee that the $6.5 billion bridge will likely require “extraordinary and costly maintenance” in the years to come.

Should Be Made in America

The entire Bee investigation is worth a read, but none of the findings come as a big shock to any of us here at the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM). After all, the whole Bay Bridge debacle led AAM to launch the Should Be Made in America campaign in 2012. As we noted back then, the Made-in-China Bay Bridge is a symbol of failure, showcasing what happens when short-sighted officials chose unproven foreign companies over American workers. We even put up billboards to get our point across.

AAM launched that campaign because we want local, state, and federal officials to make better decisions going forward.

The United States needs to repair its crumbling infrastructure over the next decade, with trillions of dollars’ worth of work to do (and nearly $500 billion in California alone).

By giving U.S. firms and American workers the opportunity to take on these important projects, officials will boost the U.S. economy and avoid many of the problems that impacted the Bay Bridge.

Some Officials Still Have a Lot to Learn

Sadly, history appears to be repeating itself in New York, where "the use of Chinese-made fabricated steel for the upper deck replacement of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge continues to draw fire," according to a report published Sunday in the Staten Island Advance. A quality assurance subcontractor has found welding issues on the steel panels being produced in China — and "filed nearly three dozen non-conformance missives which ‘remain unresolved.'"

It appears that New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority decided to outsource much of the bridge’s steel reconstruction work to China to save costs. But transportation officials should take a lesson from the mistakes that happened in California. The faulty product produced in China pushed the project behind schedule and caused taxpayers serious money — that’s not even including all the jobs that were lost when officials decided to look overseas. It also compromised standards, the Bee reports:

Caltrans’ decision to hire an inexperienced Chinese company, unaccustomed to the rigor of American construction rules, to fabricate the suspension span’s signature tower and roadway partly explains why costs ballooned to $6.5 billion and misgivings persist about the quality of the bridge. Caltrans continued to bet on ZPMC by relaxing U.S. standards when the firm couldn’t finish fast enough.

Caltrans overrode bridge welding codes and near-universal requirements for new bridge construction when it deemed many cracks in welds produced by ZPMC inconsequential and left them in place to hurry construction along, Caltrans documents show.

Oh, and by the way: The top executive for the project ended up making 64 visits to Shanghai during the construction, costing taxpayers more than $300,000 for his travel alone. He racked up 400,000 frequent flier miles for his personal use.

Photo by flickr user avrene, used following Creative Commons guidelines.