Buy America, BART
Buy America, BART
Scott N. Paul
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Buy America laws have been around since the 1930s. These laws ensure that American steel, iron and manufactured goods are afforded a preference when federal tax dollars are invested in public buildings and works such as bridges, transit systems and water pipes. The rationale is simple: Keeping tax dollars in America creates jobs here; outsourcing these projects ships jobs overseas.
Over time, our nation built the Interstate Highway System and major public works with Buy America laws. This preference has even spawned the renewal of U.S. manufacturing in industries such as streetcars that had vanished decades ago. As globalization has advanced, Buy America laws have been modernized to ensure reciprocity with trade partners that open their own procurement markets to our goods. China, however, is not one of those nations. Its web of state-owned enterprises is heavily protected by Beijing.
Several years ago, California officials in the Schwarzenegger administration made a decision to outsource some production of the eastern span of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge based on an impossibly low bid from a state-owned construction company in China that had never before built a major bridge. California officials were able to avoid "Buy America" requirements by forgoing federal funding, a decision that lost at least 2,500 manufacturing job opportunities in America. The complicated bridge design proved difficult to fabricate, and resulted in cost overruns, quality problems and delays.
That's why our movement launched a "Should Be Made in America" billboard campaign in the East Bay last month. We wanted to make sure that public officials and voters understand the importance of building infrastructure in America. Some local officials already get it. The Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District last month agreed to buy up to 40 new buses from a contractor in Hayward. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill last year that permits transit agencies to require up to 100 percent American-made purchases.
Within a few weeks, Bay Area Rapid Transit will make a key decision on a $3 billion contract to purchase new train cars. Fortunately, this project won't be outsourced to China. But there is a clear choice to make.
Because no U.S. company makes rail cars, only foreign companies bid on the contract to build 775 BART cars. One, Alstom, a French company, has committed to at least 95 percent American-made content. The top scorer in the bid, Montreal-based Bombardier, has scrambled to meet the minimum Buy America threshold of 60 percent U.S. materials and assembly. Bombardier was recently called out in a federal report for lax management of its supply chain after defective parts from China were discovered in trains Bombardier makes for the Chicago Transit Authority.
While outsourcing was all the rage for the past few decades, it has recently fallen out of favor. Long-distance supply chains are vulnerable to disruption, the separation of innovation and production is not efficient, and exchange rates, shipping costs and working conditions in China are growing more volatile. Having the option to purchase high-quality trains that are virtually 100 percent made in America should be attractive to BART.
Given California's high unemployment rate and loss of manufacturing jobs, this decision should be a no-brainer. But there are no guarantees. BART will hear recommendations from its staff on Thursday, and should make its final decision by May 10. Californians deserve not only a great transit system, but also more middle-class manufacturing jobs. The decision for BART is straightforward: Do enough to just get by, or lead. California has always led the way forward. BART, it's time to Buy America.
Scott N. Paul is the executive director for the Alliance for American Manufacturing.