DETROIT - Voters in a rural Michigan township last week derailed a General Motors plan to build a huge rail-distribution complex capable of shipping some 2 million cars and trucks a year.
The proposed complex, in Milan Township, some 45 miles southwest of Detroit, was meant to save millions of dollars a year in distribution costs by consolidating shipments from three Canadian and five Midwest assembly plants. It was defeated by 53 of 753 votes cast.
'It's a definite setback on our efforts to improve vehicle distribution from our Midwest assembly plants,' said GM spokesman Ben Ippolito. He said GM will work closely with the Ann Arbor Railroad to identify a new approach, but he declined to provide details.
Bill Robbins, the project's development manager, said the Milan distribution center would have been the first of its kind and one of the largest automotive distribution sites in North America.
'It's part of GM's plan to better manage its inventory and get its vehicles to individuals faster and more efficiently,' said Robbins, a manager with Transdevelopment Corp. of Atlanta.
The Ann Arbor Railroad of Howell, Mich., was prepared to spend $45 million to create the massive vehicle-distribution site for GM. The 1,000-acre project was to contain 450 acres of marshalling area and administration buildings astride the rail carrier's tracks.
The railroad planned to feed thousands of vehicles shipped from GM plants via truck transport into the staging area, and then aboard trains.
Kingsley Buhl, an attorney for the Ann Arbor Railroad, said GM expected to cut its distribution costs by having enough cars available to load entire trains at one time. Such unit trains offer big cost savings over a half-train load, said Buhl, a partner with the firm Dykema, Gossett PLLC of Detroit.
Because the Ann Arbor Railroad's lines cross those of large Class 1 rail carriers such as the Norfolk Southern Railroad and CSX Corp., GM stood to cut costs further, he said, by being able to offer massive cross-country shipping business to the lowest bidder.
GM now ships its vehicles from each assembly plant to points around the country. Robbins said the new strategy would have combined cars and trucks from all eight plants, making it far more efficient and less costly.
Buhl said GM and the Ann Arbor Railroad have other options. Congress provided for railroads and related companies to override local zoning that restricts rail activities, he said.
The project brought a record number of township residents to the voting booth, a local official said. Opponents complained that the project would bring truck traffic, noise and light pollution because the site was to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
'We're not sure where we go now,' Buhl said. 'Everyone is so exhausted by the experience leading up to and after the vote that we have not taken a step back.'