China's biggest heavy machinery maker wrapped up work on the new, tougher east span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge on Monday, hoping success with the $6.3 billion project will help it clinch more overseas contracts.
California's Department of Transportation chose Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Co. to fabricate the steel girders and tower meant to improve the earthquake resistance of the bridge linking San Francisco and Oakland after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake collapsed part of the bridge.
Zhenhua, which until recently focused mainly on manufacturing cranes, is hoping the project will seal its reputation as a top-notch builder able to meet the most stringent safety and quality specifications.
Its parent company, China Communications Construction Co., has built some of China's biggest bridges but made little progress in breaking into big-league projects in the U.S. and Europe. So far, most big overseas building projects undertaken by Chinese companies have been in developing regions, where political and economic risk are highest. The Bay Bridge project reflects their eagerness to take on landmark projects in the West.
"The U.S. is the world's most advanced country, and the San Francisco Bay Bridge will be a bridge of the highest quality," Zhou Jichang, chairman of Zhenhua and its parent company, China Communications Construction Co., told The Associated Press in an interview.
"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."
Five years after work started, the last four pieces _ which will anchor the bridge's lifeline suspension cables and took 3 million hours of labor to build _ are awaiting shipment to San Francisco.
"The new bridge will reflect the character of those who built it," said Tony Anziano, manager of the toll bridge program at the California Department of Transportation. "The work is done. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."
Still, two more years of work lie ahead before the new self-anchored suspension bridge's expected Sept. 2, 2013 opening.
"First and foremost, the new span is a safety project," said Steve Heminger, executive director of San Francisco's Metropolitan Transportation Commission. "Success will only be achieved when we remove travelers from the seismic risk of traveling on the existing bridge," he said.
The decision to save some $400 million by outsourcing the fabrication of the main sections of the bridge to Zhenhua reflected global realities, especially of the aging American steel industry, he said. The Chinese company has gargantuan facilities, some 35,000 workers and the ability to make and deliver the huge crane needed to lift the new sections of the bridge into place.
In a shipside ceremony Monday, the American contractors building the new span of the bridge, American Bridge Co. and joint venture partner Fluor Enterprises Inc. repeatedly praised the 2,000 Chinese who worked on the project for their diligence and professionalism.
"For the stakeholders, failure was never an option," said Michael Flowers, CEO of American Bridge.
The first shipment of segments of the bridge's deck was delayed by a few weeks two years ago due to welding problems that were soon resolved. Zhenhua had strong incentive to meet its deadlines, Zhou noted: delays would cost it $350,000 a day.
The U.S. side dispatched dozens of experts to Shanghai to help ensure the work would meet the exacting specifications required to make the bridge "the world's toughest," as the magazine Popular Mechanics quipped.
The help brought welcome improvements in Zhenhua's expertise and technology, says Zhou.
"This project was of enormous benefit to us from a technical point of view," he said.
Zhenhua's parent company, China Communications Construction Co., or CCCC, has built many of China's biggest bridges and other major structures. But Zhou conceded that meeting San Francisco's stringent specifications was a challenge.
The bridge must handle an average of 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."
"CCCC has made such bridges but there is a big gap in terms of the standards required," he said.
Zhou shrugged off California's chronic budget troubles, saying they were not an issue given China's huge holdings of U.S. Treasury bonds.
"We never questioned that we would get our money," he said. "We trust the Americans, the people and their government."
"We look at it this way. The Statue of Liberty is an excellent symbol for America. We are hoping the new San Francisco Bay Bridge, after it is built, will also become a symbolic project. We expect it to have a great impact on our future development."