Sept 23, 2011 — -- Rebuilding America's crumbling infrastructure is a growing priority, with President Obama highlighting construction jobs as part of his $447 billion jobs plan.
The president visited the "functionally obsolete" Brent Spence Bridge in Ohio Thursday and called on lawmakers to do their part in fixing America's infrastructure.
"Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge," he said in a speech. "Help us rebuild America. Help us put this country back to work."
In New York there is a $400 million renovation project on the Alexander Hamilton Bridge.
In California, there is a $7.2 billion project to rebuild the Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland.
In Alaska, there is a proposal for a $190 million bridge project.
These projects sound like steps in the right direction, but much of the work is going to Chinese government-owned firms.
"When we subsidize jobs in China, we're not creating any wealth in the United States," said Scott Paul, executive director for the Alliance for American Manufacturing.
The renovation of the Alexander Hamilton Bridge in New York is being overseen by China Construction America, a subsidiary of the China State Construction Engineering Corporation. The company uses mostly U.S. labor, but many coveted skill jobs such as engineering and design work are Chinese. The profits will also go overseas.
In Alaska, they are set to spend millions on foreign materials for the Tanana River Bridge Crossing and would largely fabricate the bridge overseas. Iron union workers took to the airwaves to express their outrage in seeing jobs go abroad.
"This is not the time to send more jobs to China," said the Alaska Iron Workers in a radio advertisement. "Our tax dollars will provide hundreds of jobs there, not at home."
U.S. law does requires major infrastructure projects to give American companies preferential treatment under Buy America, but companies can opt out and choose a foreign company if there is a significant cost differential. In the Alaska case, officials contend that even with laws that favor domestic companies, the difference in cost was still too high.
The state of California rejected federal funding for a major portion of the Bay Bridge in order to go with a Chinese company that offered the lowest bid. The move cost Americans almost 3,000 jobs -- jobs that cost the struggling California economy millions of dollars in wages, taxes and potential consumer spending.
"Had we invested that money here in California, it would have had a multiplying effect because it would not only have given thousands of Californians jobs but also the subsequent spending would have been reinvested in our economy," said California assemblyman Luis Alejo.
An official from the California Department of Transportation defended the decision to go with a Chinese company, saying that most of the bridge is being made in America, and that U.S. companies could not have done the work that was contracted abroad on time.
"One issue that you will consistently hear every time you go to a fabrication site in this country is that they struggle at this point in time to obtain welders," said Tony Anziano, a Caltrans official. "There's not sort of the educational support and the community support to pursue that trade at the level at which people used to do it. That is an issue in this country."
U.S. firms said that, had they been given enough time, they could have put together a successful bid. They added that Chinese firms have the advantage of being state-subsidized. And they warned that hiring abroad today, for any reason, will hurt the country tomorrow.
"Even though we may be saving a couple of pennies now," said Paul, of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, "the cost to our country down the road is going to outweigh that, and we're short changing the future."