A Day in the Life of the Willow Run Team

​Office of Performance and Transformation's Communication Representative Monica Drake will be following different State of Michigan employees throughout the year.

The repurposing of the historic 335-acre Willow Run Plant was made possible through the collaboration of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC).

In 1941, Ford Motor Company built the Willow Run Plant in Ypsilanti, the largest manufacturing building in the world at the time, to mass produce World War II aircraft. The plant produced 8,685 B-24 Liberator heavy bombers – the largest number of any plant in the United States. The plant was sold to General Motors in 1953 to replace a GM transmission factory in Livonia that had been destroyed in a fire. GM used the Willow Run Plant to produce Hydramatic and other automatic transmissions until it entered bankruptcy in 2009.

The site is now co-managed by DEQ and RACER (Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response) Trust, which was formed in 2011 by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to clean up former GM facilities for redevelopment. The court set a budget of nearly $40 million for DEQ and RACER Trust to manage the facility for the next 100 years.

DEQ Licensed Engineer Kevin Lund said Willow Run was one of the largest and most contaminated of the former GM sites. He said that millions of gallons of oil were used to run the machines that created the transmission parts.

"Sometimes the oil was recycled, but most of the time, it soaked through the floor. And now, all of the oil is in the ground," he said. "Under the plant floor, there's more than 40 acres of oil. Our role is to make sure the contamination doesn't have an adverse impact on human health or the environment."

In 2013, demolition of the factory began to make it easier for DEQ and RACER Trust to clean up the site.

Lund said, "We're trying to prevent the oil from spreading. ​We're installing a groundwater collection system. We will use an engineered wetland to treat the groundwater and plant certain species that utilize the contamination for growth. This system is the best way to remove toxins."

Without DEQ and RACER Trust, the land wouldn't be able to be repurposed and anyone who bought the land would be held liable for the contaminates.

"Part of the purchasing process is liability protection with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called the Prospective Purchaser Agreement — a contract with the federal government that the owner of the property won't get charged with contamination on site because that's under the purview of the State of Michigan and RACER Trust," said Lund. "They won't be held liable for the contamination but they may have to take some methods to not exacerbate that contamination."

Last year, the MEDC approved funding to construct the American Center for Mobility, a testing and product development facility for automated vehicle technology, on the Willow Run site.

 

Andrew Smart, American Center for Mobility's chief technical officer, said the center is planning to open the first phase — highway/speed vehicle testing — next month.

"The American Center for Mobility is one of the Governor's top five key initiatives. In terms of economic development in the state, this is very, very important," said Smart. "This has been a 'team sport' between local and state government, consultants, and contractors. We're all part of the ACM team, working shoulder-to-shoulder."

Smart said Michigan is the "right spot" for the American Center for Mobility because the state has always been the hub of the automotive industry and because the four seasons make the state ideal for testing vehicles.

"When it comes to automated vehicles, you have to test and validate them differently than current vehicles. You have to test them in different weather and road conditions — on the highway, in an urban environment, and in residential," he said.

In January 2017, MDOT Deputy Director of Field Services Mark Chaput was designated on special assignment to the American Center for Mobility as the Vice President of Construction and Infrastructure Development to help lead the construction of the testing facility.

"We're recreating real world infrastructure — roads, bridges, tunnels, etc. We're building a test environment that replicates that. When ACM validates the technology and the capabilities of these vehicles, they're doing it in an environment that mirrors the real world," Chaput said.

"It's very exciting to be a part of the team. From an engineering perspective, I see this technology as being an opportunity to transform the transportation industry. Safety really is the primary goal — reducing crashes and fatalities. I'm interested personally in being involved in a facility of this nature, from the ground up, that really has the opportunity to make a worldwide impact for citizens as a whole."

MDOT is currently resurfacing approximately two miles of US-12 and one mile of Wiard Road near the American Center for Mobility, reconfiguring them from divided boulevards to undivided roads to accommodate testing.

"ACM is in a license agreement with MDOT for a portion of US-12 and in a license agreement with the Washtenaw County Road Commission for portions of Wiard Road. We will actually take our test track from the ACM property out onto the public roadway and back onto the property in a 2.5-mile loop," said Chaput.

Neighboring the American Center for Mobility will be the National Museum of Aviation and Technology. While the majority of the remaining buildings on the site were demolished, a 144,000-square-foot section of the historic bomber plant was saved, and the RACER Trust sold it to Yankee Air Museum in 2014.

The museum is set to open in 2020, said Dennis Norton, founder of the Yankee Air Museum.

"What I've been impressed with is the professionalism that Kevin and Mark and a lot of other people bring to this project. It's taken a lot of different people in a lot of different professions to make this project possible," said Norton. "It's been a tremendous collaborative effort. We couldn't have done it without them."