Published September 20, 2011
When it was built in 1936, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was a Depression-era project that put scores of Americans to work. When its $6.3 billion replacement opens in two years, it will be an international affair from the bottom up, an example of massive outsourcing that has drawn both praise and criticism.
Half a dozen countries contributed expertise or materials, none more so than China.
"China was immensely helpful to getting this project built," says California Department of Transportation spokesman Bart Ney. "They were able to turn the steel around and work directly with our own inspectors to make sure we met the specifications of what this bridge required."
Several thousand Chinese workers spent five years fabricating the steel used to construct the roadbeds, cable strands, and landmark tower for the single anchor suspension bridge set to open in 2013.
But the project is sparking outrage among groups who argue the work should have stayed here.
Huge deck segments were shipped overseas from Shanghai, contributing to pollution, say critics, and delivering another blow to California's battered economy and 12 % unemployment rate.
Roger Ferch with the National Steel Bridge Alliance says "I saw one estimate of the fabrication man hours, the labor to construct this bridge in the fabrication shop of more than a million man hours. That's a million man hours of work that should have been done in the US."
And each job, Ferch, says, has a multiplier effect "because not only do you lose the fabrication jobs, you lose those people paying taxes, those people buying groceries, those people buying clothing, and the list goes on."
California transportation officials argue they saved $400 million by turning to China, in large part because they didn't have to pay American union wages and benefits. With the clock ticking, they say more was at stake than money.
"We're trying to get this bridge completed by 2013. These segments that are larger steel boxes were fabricated in Shanghai because they had the ability to produce them and get them out here on site," contends Ney.
Some critics have questioned the quality of the steel work done overseas, but bridge officials say their inspections have shown that China, which has dominated bridge building for years, has helped produce a structural marvel that will be immediately usable after a major earthquake.
Twenty two years after the Loma Prieta Quake brought down a section of the upper deck, seismic integrity is the primary objective.
The new span is also expected to enhance San Francisco's skyline, and, like it or not, China's resume as a world leader in civil engineering.