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STATE MAY ADD ROAD TO HELP FORD PLANT REDUCE COSTS

State officials are considering road projects that would ease truck access to Ford Motor Co.'s plant in Hamburg, helping the plant fight an uncompetitive cost picture that could undermine its 2,200 jobs.

Department of Transportation officials are considering an estimated $500,000 to $1 million road project that would smooth access for Ford and other manufacturers in the area.

Assemblyman Richard Smith, D-Hamburg, has discussed plans for a new access road along the Village of Blasdell line and other improvements that would allow trucks to avoid an increasingly busy stretch of Route 5. Sen. Dale Volker, R-Depew, also has discussed the plan with transportation officials.

"They're having difficulty competing with other stamping plants," Smith said. "We're going to do everything we can to keep them here."

The improvements under the state's Industrial Access Program are among a number of initiatives that Ford is seeking to offset relatively high costs, lawmakers said. Over the next few years, high taxes and energy expenses could hurt the plant's ability to attract work from Ford, undermining employment, lawmakers said.

"This is a brainstorming period -- there's nothing on paper," Volker said.

The 2,200-employee plant recently lost work making floor pans for the Thunderbird and Cougar, company spokesman Jim Cain confirmed. Ford stopped producing the models Sept. 4.

Normal attrition at the plant "more than compensated for the lost work," Cain said, but he wouldn't elaborate on the number of jobs lost. Workers said the floor-pan line employed about 50 people.

Workers at the plant say managers tell them that Buffalo isn't a strong contender for new tasks, and needs to improve its competitive posture. Plant manager Jerry Hayes has made the remarks in meetings with work team leaders, said workers who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Cain wouldn't comment on whether Buffalo has a relatively high tax and energy costs among the company's stamping plants. He said Ford wouldn't discuss an individual plant's performance, except with employees. However, legislators said they've heard similar qualms from Ford.

Metal stamping plants like the one in Hamburg that produce parts for many different models are slowly giving way to smaller, single-model plants, an industry expert said. Such "contiguous" stamping factories located near assembly plants face lower transportation costs, said Jay Baron, an industrial engineer at the University at Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. Stamping plants make steel panels for parts like doors and roofs.

But more important than transportation is the proximity of engineers to work out problems that crop up in assembly, Baron said.

"When there's a dimensional problem, you have to determine if it's the stamping or the tooling at the assembly plant," Baron said. "If the two plants are thousands of miles apart, it's a lot harder to get the team together than if they're across the hall."

Pioneered by Toyota, the contiguous stamping plants are being taken up by Big Three automakers -- Ford uses one at the Wayne, Mich., assembly plant that produces the Escort, Baron said.

The proposed road work in Hamburg hasn't yet reached the stage of a formal proposal, where the company would identify a number of jobs to be saved or created, said Kurt Felgemacher, regional municipal project coordinator for the state Transportation Department.

The proposed access road also would benefit Buffalo Crushed Stone and other employers in the area, he said. "What they need to do is gather some support from the local business community," he said.

One element of the plan is a new link between Old Mile Strip Road and Lake Avenue, allowing trucks to bypass Route 5. Smith also has discussed changes in ramps at the intersection of Routes 5 and 179 that would improve traffic flow. The area is becoming congested in summer with traffic for Woodlawn Beach, he said.

A longer access road through Bethlehem Steel property was proposed, but Bethlehem didn't want to part with the land, Felgemacher said.

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