It will be a sad day when construction is completed, and we won't have the Bay Bridge to kick around anymore.

For 22 rib-tickling years, since the project emerged in the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake, it's provided an endless supply of debates, mistakes, surprises, delays, revisions and cost overruns.

Once upon a time, it was expected to cost $1.3 billion and be finished by 2004. That was four governors ago. Then bureaucrats argued, designs were redrawn, materials were delayed, an inspection was falsified, time passed and inflation did its usual fine work.

Before you knew it, the figure was surpassing $7 billion, and the completion date was pushed back to 2013.

Oh well, no one's perfect.

It's been a wonderfully bumpy ride for those of us who critique from a distance, but not until this week did the mockery find its way onto commercial billboards.

"The Bay Bridge 100% foreign steel," reads the message printed across a replica of the Chinese flag and visible to motorists approaching the toll plaza and on Interstate 880.

So now the bridge is not only billions over budget and years late but also unpatriotic.

The Alliance for American Manufacturing is funding the campaign -- the billboards are made in the U.S. (I asked) -- to "provide a learning moment for public officials who will make future decisions about infrastructure," according to Scott Paul, the organization's executive director.


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Put another way: If government officials want to avoid public humiliation, future taxpayer-funded projects had better be American made.

At issue is the Chinese-fabricated steel used on the self-anchoring portion of the suspension span, for which Caltrans offers no apologies.

"There was no option," said spokesman Bart Ney, explaining that there was no American plant with a large enough facility or workforce to do the job.

Primary contractors on the bridge project -- American Bridge and Fluor Enterprises -- estimated it would take $400 million to $500 million just to build an American plant capable of doing the work, he said. The entire contract with the Chinese came to about $300 million.

Ney also said that the vast majority of the bridge has been constructed with American materials, including all the concrete and more than 70 percent of the steel. It was built under the oversight of American contractors and with the sweat of American laborers.

Frankly, if I were in his shoes, I'd quit playing defense and pin the blame on Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was governor when the deal went down. Ever since news of his fling with the housekeeper, everybody's been angry at him anyway.

Paul claims California missed out on a chance to create 2,500 jobs. He said state-subsidized Chinese companies don't compete on a level playing field and sending money to China only strengthens it as an international competitor.

He's not the first to voice objections. State Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, touched on the topic months ago, citing the "multiplier effect" -- payroll dollars spreading through the economy -- as a benefit of doing business domestically. Then again, Alejo wasn't in office when this deal was done. It's easy to second-guess play calling after the game is over.

What's the point in raising a ruckus now? Does 4.2 percent of a $7.2 billion project merit a hissy fit? Is this a made-in-America lesson that will resonate, or is it just a glorified lobbying effort?

We'll give that some thought in the years ahead. You know, while we're crossing our foreign-built bridge in our Japanese cars fueled by oil from Saudi Arabia.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.