Elaine Kurtenbach, AP Business Writer
SHANGHAI (AP) — Working around the clock, China's biggest heavy machinery maker put the final touches Monday 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 Co to save $400 million on labor and materials costs. Zhenhua is hoping success in the $6.3 billion project will clinch its reputation as a top-notch builder able to meet the most stringent safety and quality specifications.
"The U.S. is the world's most advanced country, and the San Francisco Bay Bridge will be a bridge of the highest quality," Zhenhua's CEO Zhou Jichang 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."
Zhenhua fabricated 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 due to 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 $350,000 a day, Zhou said.
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 self-anchored suspension bridge into place.
Five years later, the last four pieces — which will anchor the bridge's lifeline suspension cables and which took 3 million hours of labor to build — sat at Zhenhua's main plant on Changxing Island, 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."
Zhenhua's capacity to make and ship the crane and the bridge segments gave it an edge that helped it win the contract with the U.S. contractors for the project, American Bridge Co. and Fluor Enterprises Inc.
But the U.S. side did dispatch 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.
Though Zhenhua itself has relatively little experience in construction of bridges and other infrastructure, its parent company, China Communications Construction Co., or CCCC, has built many of China's biggest bridges and other landmarks.
Meeting the project's stringent specifications was a challenge, Zhou conceded. 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.
The project did have its hiccups, when inspectors spotted problems with the welding that were later resolved.
Despite its ambitions and dominant status at home, CCCC has made little progress in breaking into big-league projects in the U.S. 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.
"If we can meet the requirements for this bridge, and resolve any problems, this will give Zhenhua an excellent reputation," said Zhou, who is CCCC's chairman. "We hope the project will help Zhenhua grow bigger and expand further in the international market."
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 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."