Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Bridge to Somewhere, built in China. What's next, High-Speed Rail?

You already know that all the components for San Francisco Bay's new Eastern Span Bridge, being built to replace the old one which is not seismically acceptable, are made in China.

Actually, if you look around your house and in all the retail stores you visit, isn't just about everything made in China?  The US has become the shopper of the world with the biggest credit card in the world, and China has become our biggest shopping mall in the world.

What does that suggest as we ramp up to build a high-speed rail system in the state of California?  Yes, it could very well be built in China, and if not China, then Europe, or Japan.  Anyhow, it certainly can't be built here.  We don't have the know-how or the capacity to build high-speed trains.

So what? What's wrong with buying stuff from overseas? Well, one of the basic tenets of this HSR program at the national as well as state levels is its intention to inject borrowed dollars into the economy and create jobs.  But wait.  Aren't many of those dollars going to be going out of state and out of the country to buy stuff, and also to buy the expertise which we don't have?

There are so many bizarre features to this high-speed rail effort that don't get all the attention they should.  

1. It's federal stimulus funds to improve the economy and mitigate unemployment that will pay for a train built overseas, and construction by a company (PB) based in the UK.  

2. The project neglects the mass transit needs in the higher density population regions, in order to start in the low population Central Valley where such a train is totally unnecessary.  

3. This project begins with far too low a cost projection and far too high a ridership projection, so that upon completion we will inevitably discover that those numbers become reversed, with far higher construction costs and far lower ridership numbers than predicted.  

4. And, one of my favorite paradoxes is that this project is being promoted by Democrats, the Party of the "poor," and resisted by Republicans, the party of the "rich."  However, it's the taxes of the "poor" that will pay for the construction and operation of the train, and it's only the "rich" who will be able to afford to ride on the train. 

The US is promoting HSR for all the wrong reasons, and not doing all the necessary things, like refurbishing our decaying infrastructure.  What wasteful stupidity. 

San Fran's Bay Bridge - made in China
By Elaine Kurtenbach

5:30 AM Tuesday Jul 12, 2011
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Working around the clock, China's biggest heavy machinery maker is putting the final touches on sections of the new east span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, the biggest project so far for the state-run giant expanding in the global construction market.

California outsourced manufacturing of the main parts of the bridge to Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries to save US$400 million ($480 million) on labour and materials.

Zhenhua is hoping success in the US$6.3 billion project will clinch its reputation as a top-notch builder able to meet stringent safety and quality specifications.

"The US is the world's most advanced country, and the San Francisco Bay Bridge will be a bridge of the highest quality," said Zhenhua's chief executive, Zhou Jichang.

"We believe this bridge is very important. When people see it, they will ask, 'who built it?"' he said. "This will really raise our brand image."

Zhenhua is fabricating the steel girders and tower for the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, which is being replaced to improve its earthquake resistance after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake collapsed part of the bridge.

The first shipment of segments of the bridge's deck was delayed by a few weeks two years ago because of welding problems. But those were resolved and the bridge is due to open as planned in 2013; any delays in the final schedule would cost Zhenhua US$350,000 a day, Zhou noted.

California's Department of Transportation chose Zhenhua, a port machinery maker employing 35,000 workers that has branched into bridge building, partly for its gargantuan facilities and its ability to make and deliver the huge crane needed to lift the new sections of the eastern segment's suspension bridge into place.

Zhenhua's location in Shanghai, its massive new facilities on Changxing Island, its capacity to make and ship the crane and the bridge segments, all gave it an edge, says Zhou.

Zhenhua's US partners in the project, American Bridge and Fluor Enterprises, sent dozens of experts to Shanghai to ensure the work would meet the exacting specifications.

Though Zhenhua has relatively little experience in construction of bridges and other infrastructure, its parent company, China Communications Construction, or CCCC, has built many of China's biggest bridges.

Meeting the project's specifications was a challenge, Zhou said. The bridge must handle an average 300,000 vehicles a day and be strong enough to withstand any quake.

"In general, if a bridge is able to withstand an earthquake without collapsing or breaking, that is good enough," Zhou said.

"But this requirement was that it be usable right after a quake." 

Despite its ambitions and dominant status at home, CCCC has made little progress in breaking into big-league projects in the US and Europe. But like China's high-speed rail companies and other big state companies, it is set on winning a place among global market leaders. 

So far, most big overseas building projects undertaken by Chinese companies have been in developing regions, where political and economic risk are highest.

For Zhenhua, California's chronic budget troubles were not an issue, said Zhou. After all, China is the biggest holder of US Treasury bonds.

"We never questioned that we would get our money," he said.

"We trust the Americans, the people and their Government.
- AP
By Elaine Kurtenbach

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