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Chinese firm reportedly cost California taxpayers millions extra for spotty bridge work

San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge.jpg

Nov. 12, 2013: A journalist looks over the original east span of the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge,Reuters

California officials may be coming to regret going with the lowest bidder for repairs on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, as reports show the Chinese company hired by the state produced spotty work that cost millions more to fix. 

The state, initially hoping to save on construction costs, hired Chinese company Zhenhua Port Machinery for the massive bridge repair -- as well as construction of the bridge’s new signature tower and roadway -- back in 2006. The company, though, had never built a bridge before.

The Sacramento Bee reported Saturday that based on its review of more than 100,000 pages of construction records, Zhenhua Port Machinery not only lacked experience but was unable to make key decisions that led to millions of dollars being wasted on the project. The company also reportedly delivered a bridge replete with cracked welds. 

Zhenhua deals mainly with cranes and port-loading and unloading systems and equipment. Despite lacking bridge-building and repair skills on its resume, the company came in with the lowest bid on the California project by $250 million and pledged to work faster than its competitors.

Officials at Caltrans, the California state agency responsible for highway, bridge and rail work, ended up forking over more money to the Shanghai-based company as a speed incentive despite spending hundreds of millions more to fix problems with the company’s work, the newspaper reported.

The Bee’s investigation also revealed that two engineers who worked on the project, one from Caltrans and the other employed by a contractor, were reassigned after they voiced concerns about Zhenhua’s work.

At a California Senate committee hearing in January, the two workers testified they didn’t have issues with safety but said there were many construction issues that could likely lead to costly future repairs. 

While all the assembly work – like pouring the concrete road surface -- was done by Americans, components of the bridge decks came from China. 

Jim Merrill, a senior materials contractor for the bridge project, said throwing money at the problem did not fix it. One problem the bridge had were so-called tack welds, which hold in place steel parts in preparation for final welds, the paper reported. Tack welds were cracking routinely and the cracks often remained underneath the final welds, according to Merrill's testimony at the Senate hearing. 

California, though, is just the latest state to turn to China for cheaper materials in an effort to cut construction costs.

In New York, Chinese companies, fresh off showcase projects like Beijing airport’s Terminal 3 – twice the size of the Pentagon and among the largest buildings in the world – as well as the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project, helped the Asian companies win lucrative contracts to revamp the city’s subway system. 

Chinese companies have also successfully snagged the rights to build a new Metro-North train platform as well as the contract to refurbish the Alexander Hamilton Bridge in New York.  

American steelworkers unions have long criticized the use of Chinese companies, brought in under the guise of speedy service, and warn of potential safety risks.

“Fundamentally, you don’t think about country of origin,” Gary Hubbard, a spokesman with United Steelworkers told FoxNews.com.

“If America wants to be a global leader, we have to act like one, not look for cheap alternatives,” he added.

On Friday, United Steelworkers announced they launched a campaign to urge New York lawmakers to co-sponsor and pass "Buy American" legislation which would require all state projects to abide by rules requiring construction companies on government contracts to use domestic “construction materials.”

The USW claims state authorities have been operating on the edges of the regulations and want it stopped. The union is pushing hard for new legislation that “makes it clear that regardless of how any state agency derives revenues, it must abide by the same Buy American standards as spelled out in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.”

Last year, the Port Authority of New York and the Metropolitan Transit Authority approved a $235 million bid to two state-owned Chinese steel facilities.

“The first company will provide 15,000 metric tons of specialty steel which it has never produced before, and the second will fabricate orthotropic desk sections for the first time to rebuild the Verrazano Narrows Bridge,” the USW told FoxNews.com in a written statement.

Abroad, Chinese-owned companies have leveraged their success at Terminal 3 to court contracts in the Congo, for multi-million dollar apartment complexes in Saudi Arabia and for high-speed rail lines in Brazil.

Calls to Zhenhua Port Machinery and Caltrans for comment were not returned.