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The Nation

A Quiet Ambition at Work

Bechtel prides itself on discretion, but its projects, such as the $680-million contract to rebuild Iraq, give it a high profile.

June 08, 2003|David Streitfeld | Times Staff Writer

GIG HARBOR, Wash. — It takes a special sort of gumption to build a new bridge over the grave of an old one, particularly when the first span blew apart in one of the great engineering disasters of the 20th century.

A mere four months after the Tacoma Narrows Bridge opened in 1940, it bucked and swayed and plunged in a brisk wind. A replacement was built a decade later and still stands, but for civil engineers Galloping Gertie remains the more vivid presence.

"I studied the collapse in graduate school," says Joe Collins, part of a team now building a new bridge at the site. "Most of us did. When my advisor learned I was coming here, he said, 'Make sure we're not teaching your bridge in future classes.' "

The steel-and-concrete structure will be the longest new suspension bridge in this country since 1964 and an unusual example of a new span constructed alongside an existing one. That makes it a routinely unprecedented effort for Bechtel Group Inc., the San Francisco construction and engineering firm that is co-managing the project.

Bechtel prides itself on the monumental. Its achievements include Hoover Dam, the English Channel Tunnel, the San Francisco and Portland light-rail systems, the first major pipeline across the Middle East and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Bechtel worked on the design or construction of more than half of the nuclear power plants in the U.S. and is building a city for 300,000 in the Arabian desert.

But it has never undertaken anything quite like its latest mission, which will happen a world away from this green and wet spot.

Seven weeks ago, Bechtel won a secret, invitation-only U.S. government contract to rebuild Iraq. The work of repairing hospitals, schools, government buildings and roads will get underway in earnest this summer under an 18-month, $680-million contract. Experts see the contract as a first step, and say the deal could ultimately be worth billions if the Bush administration is serious about substantially upgrading Iraq's infrastructure.

It's nation-building on a scale never before attempted by the U.S. government, much less a single company. The spotlight has been intense, with criticism surfacing in the media and in the streets.

Activists decrying "the corporate invasion of Iraq" tried to block the entrance to Bechtel's headquarters Thursday. Forty-three were arrested. The protests were a sequel to a much bigger demonstration in late March, which also resulted in dozens of arrests. Meanwhile, newspaper editorials and columnists talk darkly of insider connections at Bechtel that date from the Reagan administration.

Bechtel is no stranger to criticism. A retired Massachusetts judge was recently appointed to lead an investigation of massive cost-overruns in a $14.6-billion highway project in Boston -- dubbed the Big Dig -- that Bechtel is co-managing. Bechtel says it looks forward to a "fair, objective, and expert review of its record."

Bechtel also drew the wrath of anti-globalization activists after a partially owned subsidiary began operating the water system in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba in late 1999. Rates were raised to pay for improvements in the system, which sparked riots. In April 2000, the Bolivian government canceled the contract -- which a Bechtel spokesman chalked up to politics.

All the scorn perplexes and infuriates the company, the largest privately owned firm in California. Bechtel's Web site chastises journalists for "uncritically reporting innuendo from partisan organizations and political critics." It says allegations of "friends in high places" are "specious or irrelevant." Executives forcefully reject descriptions of Bechtel as a sort of malign behemoth.

"We are a tiny, tiny part of a highly fragmented industry," says Bechtel Principal Vice President Jim Illich. "This business is as tough as a night in jail."

Indeed, the company is misunderstood, Illich and other executives say. Partly that's because few ever see the real Bechtel, which isn't at the headquarters. It's in the field, out where the vast majority of the company's 47,000 employees work on dozens of multiyear projects worth as much as or more than the Iraq contract.

Which brings us to Tacoma, a quite different sort of job than Iraq: one tricky bridge to be built over many years versus a whole country refurbished as quickly as possible.

Yet in Iraq and Tacoma, Bechtel has an identical goal, the same one it always has in its construction projects. It intends to create something that works and then move on, leaving not so much as a plaque behind.

In other words, what's true of the bridge is also true of Iraq: If Bechtel's work there is taught in the classrooms of the future, if it is remembered at all, that will be proof of its failure.

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