It’s probably not the smartest assertion to make next time you’re hoisting a beer with a local ironworker, but the fact is, the new Tacoma Narrows bridge wasn’t built in America.
True, local trades workers spent thousands of hours pouring concrete, tying rebar and spinning cable under dangerous and difficult conditions.
But “Made in America” doesn’t begin to describe this bridge.
Most of the steel came from Japan. The company that supplied the concrete is owned by a corporation based in Tokyo. The mile-long deck was built in South Korea and hauled to Tacoma on Dutch ships.
All the cable-spinning equipment came from Japan, and the 19,000 miles of wire inside the main cables was manufactured in South Korea, China and England.
Upset about it? Bring it up with the head honcho at Tacoma Narrows Constructors, project manager Manuel Rondon. You might get a sympathetic ear, but then again, you might not. Rondon himself is an import – from Venezuela.
The new Narrows bridge is a prime example of a new global reality in the world of big construction.
Contractors are as likely to be on the other side of the world as down the street. When TNC went shopping for subcontractors and expertise, it used the entire world as its supermarket.
That’s a revolutionary change since the first two bridges were built across the Narrows.
Galloping Gertie in 1940 and its 1950 replacement had all-American pedigrees. They were built entirely with American labor and materials (although Gertie unfortunately turned out not to be the best argument for American quality).
The steel for both bridges came from the Bethlehem Steel Co. in Pennsylvania, the wire and spinning expertise from John A. Roebling’s Sons in New Jersey.
But by 2000, when contracts for the new Narrows bridge were being negotiated, the American steel industry had imploded.
Roebling’s plants closed down in 1974 and Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt in 2001, both victims of the U.S. economy’s move away from manufacturing and its inability to compete with cheap foreign labor.
Steel-making had moved to Asia and so had much of the expertise necessary to build suspension bridges.
Of the 10 longest-span suspension bridges built in the world since 1996, eight are in China or Japan. The world’s longest, Japan’s $5 billion Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, has a main span of 6,529 feet, more than twice the length of the 2,800-foot main span at the Narrows.
Old black-and-white construction photographs of the first two Narrows bridges can make them seem like ancient history, but, in fact, bridge construction in the Narrows began only 68 years ago, a period easily spanned by a single lifetime.
Bill Methany, a retired Puyallup ironworker, helped build Gertie and the 1950 bridge, and, to him, the transition to global construction economics seems sudden and revolutionary.
Methany is a World War II veteran who flew combat missions over Japan in B-29 bombers, making Japan’s ascendance in the construction industry seem particularly surreal.
“It seems to me it isn’t much made in America anymore,” he said. “I don’t know what they do make in this country anymore.”
FEDERAL RULES DON’T APPLY
The federal government has taken some steps to protect American suppliers. For example, construction projects with federal funding are subject to the Federal Highway Administration’s “Buy America” requirement to use domestic steel.
But the new Narrows bridge is on a state highway and received no federal funds, even though it’s a critical link between the largest military facilities on the West Coast – Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma with the Trident submarine base and naval shipyard in Kitsap County.
Without federal funding, the Buy America requirement didn’t apply, leaving TNC free to shop elsewhere.
From a purely economic point of view, Japanese steel and Korean labor were obvious choices.
The 35.5 million-pound order for deck steel went to Nippon Steel, and the two-year deck fabrication contract to Samsung Heavy Industries. All the steel for the spinning wire, a total purchase order of nearly 10.5 million pounds, went to Japan and was manufactured at the Kiswire plant in South Korea.
When more than a quarter of the wire corroded while in storage, TNC found emergency replacements not in the United States but in South Korea, China and Britain.
TNC’s choice of Asian subcontractors to manufacture the bridge deck wasn’t based on economics alone. Constructing the structure was beyond the physical capacity of any U.S. facility.
Designers used an “orthotropic” design for the deck, which called for a solid sheet of five-eighths-inch steel on top, supported by a 35-foot-high beam and truss system below.
The deck needed to be built in 46 sections, each as large as a warehouse and weighing as much as 500 tons. The sections had to be individually shaped to form the deck’s gradual curve as it arched from shore to shore. To make sure they fit, they needed to be laid out end to end on dry land.
Decades of American losses in the steel and shipbuilding industries had left the country with no plant big enough for the job.
The Samsung shipyard on South Korea’s Koje Island, on the other hand, had plenty of room and was right on the water. That made transportation relatively easy, even though the shipyard was 5,000 miles away, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
The relatively cheap cost of Korean labor was an added bonus.
According to a 2005 report to state legislators by Linea Laird, the state’s Narrows bridge project manager, a cost analysis during contract negotiations showed using foreign steel and foreign labor would save about $30 million.
CANADIAN WIND TESTING
Free-trade proponents maintain the United States can stay competitive in the world market by concentrating on the high end of manufacturing, providing technical expertise and engineering innovations.
Most of the engineering and design for the new bridge was performed in the United States – by the New York-based Parson’s Transportation Group. But by no means was all of the technical work American.
To determine how the wind would react to two parallel suspension bridges so close together, TNC turned to Canada.
Ottawa’s Rowan Williams Davies & Irwin Inc. and Canada’s National Research Council Institute for Aerospace Research built two 26-foot-long models of the bridges and tested them in giant wind tunnels.
To see how the Narrows currents would react to two adjacent sets of underwater caissons, TNC used the hydraulics research firm H.R. Wallingford Ltd. in Wallingford, England.
Global free trade is a fact of life on many big construction projects, but it applied on the Narrows project more than most because of the unusual construction methods required. Big suspension bridges are built rarely enough that there’s no ready reserve of expertise in the United States.
Suspension-bridge specialists are a rare and sophisticated subset in the universe of civil engineering. At the top levels they are contractors without borders, international citizens who travel constantly from project to project.
Dave Climie, head of superstructure construction on the Narrows project, is a Scotsman who before coming to the Narrows had supervised the deck and cable work on three of the world’s longest suspension bridges. He came to the Narrows directly from China, where he was building a suspension bridge over the Yangtze River.
One of Climie’s’ top lieutenants, Karsten Baltzer, is a Danish engineer who learned his trade on the Storebaelt East Bridge in Denmark and on China’s Jingyiang Bridge, the world’s fourth largest.
The detailed engineering and fieldwork and all the spinning and cable-wrapping equipment used on the bridge were provided by TNC’s Japanese subcontractor NSKB, a joint venture between the Japanese construction giants Nippon Steel and Kawada Industries.
To direct the spinning and deck-lifting operations at the Narrows, an NSKB team of six Japanese experts moved to Gig Harbor with their families and set up desks at the TNC field office.
TNC’s deals with Asian companies angered American labor unions. The deck construction alone would provide jobs for hundreds of Korean workers for two years.
Unions didn’t like what they saw as exporting jobs, but they were mollified by the number of jobs the bridge would create locally. Over the five years of construction, the project provided hundreds of thousands of work hours of union jobs, with overtime and benefits.
And, while the biggest contracts went to Asian subcontractors, the bridge project also spread millions of dollars to Washington companies, ranging from a three-person model-making shop in Tacoma’s Nalley Valley to Seattle’s Todd Pacific Shipyards.
Todd, on Harbor Island at the mouth of the Duwamish River in Seattle, was selected to build the bridge’s “cutting edges,” the steel caisson bottoms. Its $5.4 million contract was one-fifth the size of the one awarded to Samsung, but it nevertheless was a welcome boost for Todd, still recovering from a bankruptcy reorganization.
In Tacoma, the Atlas Castings & Technology foundry won the contract to forge the new bridge’s “saddles,” the SUV-sized hardware that cradles the main cables at the tower tops and the anchorages. To handle the job, Atlas added 15 employees to its work force, including molders, core makers, welders and grinders.
Jesse Engineering, a steel fabrication firm near the Port of Tacoma, was hired to make other specialized equipment, including the big spinning wheels that would carry main cable wire back and forth across the Narrows.
And Amaya Electric, based just south of Tacoma in Lakewood, became the primary electrical contractor on the job.
Glacier Northwest won the biggest local contract, providing the 190,000 cubic yards of concrete that went into the bridge’s anchorages, caissons, towers and highway approaches.
Strictly speaking, however, that contract wasn’t entirely local. While Glacier Northwest is based in Seattle, its owners are in Tokyo: the mammoth Taiheiyo Cement Corp.
Some economists say this is the way it works in the international market. Jobs tend to flow to cheap labor markets, but, in the end, everybody profits.
Global partners building a bridge in Tacoma isn’t so different from Americans buying shirts at Wal-Mart. Asia gets the jobs; Americans benefit by getting cheaper shirts.
In the case of the Narrows bridge, other countries shared the jobs; Americans got a cheaper bridge and will pay lower tolls as a result.
That logic isn’t a convincing to retired ironworker Methany. He’s more impressed by the swath of depressed Rust Belt cities across America’s upper Midwest.
“Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, used to be the steel capital of the world, and I don’t think there’s a single mill left in Pittsburgh today,” he said. “It’s all outsourcing.
“I’ve been a union man my entire life. Organized labor is this country. Big business fights it, but organized labor built this country.
“What if we have another war like World War II?” he asked. “Where are we going to get the materials we need?”
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693
Main cable wire
Self-climbing tower form system
Home port of deck-delivery ships
Deck-lifting rams and jacks
Cable anchor strand shoes
Home of superstructure manager Dave Climie
Home of project manager Manuel Rondon
Trinidad and Tobago
Asphalt for deck surfaces
Winches for maneuvering deck-delivery ship
Home of cable specialist Karsten Baltzer