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Companies court allies for bridge bid

April 27, 2004 Reposted from the Oregonian
   By Allan Brettman

VANCOUVER -- Four steel fabricators hoping to land a $300 million bridge contract met Monday with two Washington congressmen who could influence the selection.

U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, with U.S. Rep. Brian Baird serving as tour guide, visited three of the four companies' work sites on the Columbia River in Vancouver during a busy, one-day visit.

Afterward, Baird, who has been working with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in assisting the four companies, declined to speculate on their prospects in securing a contract that would add a minimum of 300 family-wage jobs for at least four years.

Thompson Metal Fab, Universal Structural, Oregon Iron Works and Fought & Co. teamed up -- forming a company called Bay Bridge Fabricators -- for a bid to manufacture the steel deck that will be used on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

The entire $2.9 billion project to replace a 2.2-mile span on the east end of the bridge is expected to be completed in 2009; construction started in 2001.

On May 4, the companies will meet with California Department of Transportation officials to present their collective capabilities, said John B. Rudi, president of Thompson Metal Fab. A May 26 deadline for bid submissions is subject to change.

Three of the Bay Bridge Fabricators have factory space in Vancouver's Columbia Business Center, once the site of the World War II-era Kaiser Shipyards. But if the contract is awarded, the Fabricators would lease an additional 25 acres from the Port of Vancouver and invest $30 million in site improvements.

Dicks toured Oregon Iron Works' plant in the business center, inspecting a torpedo-recovery boat being built for the U.S. Navy. Dicks serves on the Defense Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations.

"They do good work here," said Dicks, who has spent time aboard a different Oregon Iron Works boat, a craft that is cloaked in homeland security secrecy and that company officials declined to describe.

At Thompson, Rudi joined Dave Williams, vice president and general manager of Universal, to describe the Bay Bridge details.

"It was originally designed to be an Asian product," Williams said. The California Department of Transportation "didn't think anybody in the United States was big enough to do a bridge of this size. We've been trying to prove them wrong."

The Fabricators' hopes rest on a requirement that contractors "buy American" for federally funded projects such as the Bay Bridge. That requirement generally allows domestic bids to be as much as 25 percent more than those of foreign competitors.

Earlier this year, Baird, a Democrat, tried -- but failed -- to increase the threshold to 30 percent.

Rudi said the average hourly pay for a steelworker on the Fabricators' Bay Bridge project would be $27 an hour. A laborer in China doing similar work would be paid the equivalent of $2 an hour, he told Dicks. The disparity makes it hard to meet even the 25 percent provision, he said.

Baird said Asian competitors follow less stringent environmental and safety standards than the Fabricators do.

Dicks had a busy day in Vancouver. Between being shuttled from one Vancouver company to another, he paused midmorning for a conference call. Dicks and Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., hosted a conference call to respond to Vice President Dick Cheney's speech in Missouri attacking Sen. John Kerry's national security record.

Dicks also took a lunchtime break to visit with Baird's supporters at a Marshall House reception on Officers Row. Later, he dropped by the Veterans Affairs hospital in Vancouver, and he visited the Red Cross Building under renovation in the Vancouver National Historic Reserve.

His day began at nLight Photonics, a laser diode manufacturing and research company on the northern edge of Vancouver. The company has secured contracts in the past year with various military contractors.

Scott Keeney, nLight president and chief executive officer, was familiar with Dicks, having grown up in the Seattle area.

"His seniority matters a lot back in Washington, D.C., and for the work we're doing in defense," Keeney said of Dicks, the ranking Democrat on the Interior Subcommittee on Appropriations.

"He goes back to the days of (former Sen. Warren G. 'Maggie') Magnuson and (former Sen. Henry M.) 'Scoop' Jackson," both renowned for reaping federal dollars for Washington state projects, Keeney said, "and he continues that tradition."


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