A report in the New York Times today, said that a Chinese company is building much of the new San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge. This is probably old news to many since the project has been several years in process already, but it was the first I heard about it.
It always seemed to me there is something distinctly American about building big things. Highways, railroads, skyscrapers, dams, shopping malls and most of all, bridges. Bridges have names and purposes. Bridges identify cities and excite travelers (“We crossed the GW at night and we could see all the city lights”). Bridges are our gateways and part of our heritage and pride.
Between 1849 and 1964 twelve new bridges in the United States extended the world record lengths for suspension bridges from 1,010 ft to 4,259 ft. Americans built all of them. Starting with the Wheeling, WV bridge finished in 1849 and measuring 1,010 ft. and ending with the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, which was the longest suspension bridge until 1981. It measured 4,259 ft. Some of these iconic twelve bridges include the Brooklyn Bridge over Manhattan’s East River, the Ben Franklin connecting Philadelphia and New Jersey over the Delaware River. the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the George Washington Bridge spanning the Hudson.
Imagine that! For 132 years, without interruption, we built the longest most beautiful bridges in the world. But since then…not so much. The Bay Bridge is not kid stuff. The costs are over 7 billion dollars, its really two bridges a viaduct and a tunnel. It’s big, it’s complicated and it’s here. Why aren’t Americans building all of it?
Well from what I’ve read of the history of the Bay Bridge project there’s a host of reasons. The estimated costs were always too low and a constant moving target. The design spec got input from everyone and everywhere and became a beauty contest, and the politics, as you might expect were the usual snake pit. The one thing that did not seem to be on anyone’s mind was employing American workers to build it. The two American companies who were the prime contractor dismissed the capacity of domestic steel industry to fabricate the bridge. This even though the Chinese company had yet to build a bridge or use the technology that was contemplated by the design.
Cost seemed to be the over riding issue for California. The NYT states that California decided not to apply for federal funds since they would then have had to purchase from US manufacturers. This is a muddy area since other accounts indicate that they could forego that requirement if the foreign bid were more than 25% cheaper than the domestic costs. The NYT also quoted a Chinese steel polisher working on a section of the bridge as saying he is paid $12 per day.
If we could build new bridges for 150 years, why did we stop? Did we forget how? The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was built in less than four years with no federal, state or local governmant money. It’s almost 20 miles long and includes bridges, tunnels and four man made islands. The first two lanes cost less than $200 million and were completed in 1964. Two additional lanes were open in 1999. They cost less than $250 million. No tax dollars were used.
By now we’re use to the fact that manufacturing costs are lower in most of the world. We’re use to buying t-shirts, electronics, kitchen items, shoes, tires, just about any consumer goods from anywhere in the world. But bridges?
I’m not a protectionist. I’ve always been for free trade and against tariffs. They just don’t make sense. But bridges…OUR BRIDGES. And one of the guys building it makes 12 dollars a DAY!
I might have to re-think some of this.
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