Workers at the General Motors engine plant construction site plan to have the expansion fully enclosed in a month or so.
Not only will that be a visible sign of progress in the $500 million project in the Town of Tonawanda -- it will give the crews some relief from the colder weather that's blowing in.
Completing such a mammoth job on time sometimes means overcoming the elements. Ken Eutsler, project manager with Washington Group International, referred to a photograph on display at the site Friday. It shows a worker who erected a cardboard screen next to his work area, to thwart the cold wind and keep on welding.
"That really says a statement," Eutsler said. "Whatever it takes, these guys saddle up for it."
General Motors paid tribute to the construction workers on Friday by sponsoring a luncheon marking 100,000 man-hours worked without a lost-time injury since the 650,000-square-foot project started in April. Project officials said that's especially notable since the early stages of a project, when the steel is being erected, is the most dangerous time on a site.
It was casual dining: hot dogs and hamburgers, with tables set up on the concrete floor they built. Eventually, GM will make "inline" four- and five-cylinder engines on the same surface.
"It's on schedule and on budget," said Warren Bryant, project director for Washington Group, which is serving as the project manager.
Henry Walerowicz, a steamfitter from Niagara Falls, described the project as safe and well-organized. He's been working on it for about four weeks.
"You're building something that's going to help the area and the environment in Erie and Niagara counties that's desperately needed," he said.
Mike Harman, an electrician who works for O'Connell Electric, called the expansion "historic."
"We're building it," he said. "We can look at our grandchildren and say, 'Hey, we worked on that.' "
Local and state officials hope the project will give the plant just that sort of longevity. It's expected to ensure the viability of the site and its 4,000 employees, giving the plant more work as older engine lines are phased out.
More than 200 construction workers are involved in the construction now, Bryant said. That number is expected to peak at about 400.
Timothy Strauss of GM's Worldwide Facilities Group said he was pleased with the expansion's progress. "Our goal is to get things buttoned up before the Buffalo winter hits," he said.
Strauss said he expects construction to be finished next June. Once all the equipment is installed and tested, production should begin around April 2004, he said.
Though the North American auto market has slowed, Strauss said the new engines the Tonawanda plant will produce will go into vehicles designed to be fuel-efficient. "They should be poised for the marketplace," he said.