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From China With Glove: Failures of Outsourced Bay Bridge Project Revealed

Bay Bridge outsourced

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A recent long read from the Sacramento Bee details the decision of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to hire a Chinese contractor, Shanghai Zhenhua Port Machinery Co. Ltd. (ZPMC), to rebuild key parts of the Bay Bridge and how the company’s inexperience and shoddy work have led to structural doubts and inflated costs to taxpayers.  As we wrote in May of 2013, the failure of 32 bolts put the future of the project’s timeline in question and added to an already inflating cost.  Over a year later, the decision by Caltrans to “save money” and outsource the work has proven disastrous.  

The Bee’s investigation unearthed the following findings:

• Caltrans approved a Chinese firm to build the roadway and iconic tower. When the company ignored quality requirements and fell behind schedule, Caltrans paid hundreds of millions of dollars to induce faster work.

• Caltrans permitted an unknown number of cracked or suspect welds in the suspension span. After two senior engineers challenged quality assurance practices, Caltrans reassigned one and let the other’s contract lapse.

• The Bay Bridge oversight committee pressured Caltrans to speed up the job despite signs that quality control had broken down.

• Tony Anziano, chief executive for toll-bridge work, made at least 64 visits to Shanghai, stayed in one of the city’s most luxurious hotels and spent more than $300,000 on travel during construction.

From the beginning, Caltrans sought speed and cost effectiveness when searching for a contractor.  Their decision to go with an inexperienced Chinese firm in order to save $250 million has proven costly.  As noted by the Sacramento Bee, those involved in the early stages of the project warned of this possibility, but Caltrans turned blind eyes and deaf ears to their concerns:  

Bridge officials were racing to finish the span, pushed years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget by political squabbles and construction delays. Fearful that the old bridge might not survive a major quake, they wanted speed and savings.

Caltrans asked an outside expert to assess whether ZPMC could do the job, and Jim Merrill, a senior materials contractor for the bridge project, gave the company a “contingent pass.” He also labeled it “high risk.” Among other problems, ZPMC didn’t have enough qualified welders or inspectors, the audit noted, and routinely welded in the rain, a basic error that often causes defects.

Undeterred, Caltrans signed off.

So begins the saga of the outsourced infrastructure debacle that is the Bay Bridge. An American workforce would not only have proven more cost efficient, but could have invigorated the local economy (Oakland’s unemployment rate remains above 11% at the time of this writing).  

To read the history of Caltrans, ZPMC, and the problems they have dealt with on the Bay Bridge, read the Sacramento Bee article in its entirety.


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