DID Maryland win a consolation prize last month? Or did the General Motors Co.'s decision to build a $214 million transmission plant in Baltimore County signal even better news ahead about the future of GM's outmoded Broening Highway plant, which employs 2,800 local workers?
Taking a pessimistic view, the Allison Transmission division plant that will start rising on a 65-acre tract between Philadelphia Road and Pulaski Highway this summer is GM's way of thanking Baltimore for 64 years of high-caliber auto-manufacturing at Broening Highway.
The plant will open in about two years with 470 well-paid workers producing Allison's hot-selling 1000 series automatic transmissions for light trucks, vans, buses, off-the-road vehicles and an array of commercial vehicles. Given the rising worldwide demand for this automatic transmission, the plant is expected to at least double its size -- and its work force -- in short order.
This would give the region some solace if GM decides to shut down its Broening Highway complex and not build a replacement plant here.
Taking an optimistic view, GM doesn't plunk down a crucial parts plant in White Marsh without well thought-out plans to integrate that facility with a close-at-hand manufacturing plant. The whole notion of "just-in-time" production demands that a transmission plant be in close proximity to an assembly plant.
Otherwise, GM will waste a ton of money -- and time -- shipping all those transmissions across the country to other plants.
Building a new assembly plant in Baltimore would make sense for other reasons. The skilled workers needed to man such a complicated facility are already trained and in place. That's a big money-saver and a huge plus in the area of quality assurance.
This particular work force has gotten high marks from GM over the years for its productivity. It also is a cooperative labor pool, eager to help the company.
A new plant immediately adjacent to the Broening Highway facility would have an enormous advantage if GM plans to ship vehicles via the Port of Baltimore -- as Allison apparently intends to do with some of its transmissions. Workers could practically roll the cars or trucks from GM's gates to the loading docks next door at Dundalk Marine Terminal.
GM also could benefit from the emergence of a second highly competitive rail carrier at the port, Norfolk Southern. It likely means lower rail shipping costs.
State officials have discussed other sites with GM, including 700 acres near the Allison Transmission plant in White Marsh. The synergy could be tremendous. These sites offer "very attractive solutions," according to one economic development executive.
Maryland is prepared to put considerable sums of money into any GM project here, similar to help given Marriott International to build a new headquarters in Maryland, and the aid package offered to Maersk/Sea-Land in the state's failed effort to triple the port's container business.
Equally important, the Allison Transmission negotiations showed GM how cooperative and aggressively determined Maryland officials have become in creating business opportunities. They made it easy for Allison officials to choose White Marsh.
Senator Mikulski's role
GM also could benefit enormously from the continuing support of Maryland's U.S. senators on air-quality and plant-pollution standards. That's especially important in the case of Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee that handles funding for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Shuttering the Broening Highway plant could create political shock waves GM would just as soon avoid.
The auto manufacturer might tip its hand as soon as this month. It keeps such decisions under tight wraps until the official announcement. But the Glendening administration has put before the company some comprehensive proposals and presented a unified front of government and labor officials that promises GM clear sailing in building a new plant.
In the end, it may not be enough. But the case for General Motors staying in the Baltimore region seems pretty persuasive.
Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.