Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Decision expected on Division Street traffic project

By CHENQI GUO
Capital News Service

LANSING – Traverse City is looking at adding five roundabouts on Division Street to solve traffic problems.

“We have a preliminary design based on a plan that revolves around roundabouts and a number of intersections along Division Street,” Harry Burkholder, community planner for the Land Information Access Association.

“No decision has been made. It’s just a concept,” he said.

Laura Aylsworth, the URS Corp. branch manager at Traverse City, said, “We’ve been looking through a bunch of public input and we had received input from the public on potential solutions to what they thought the problems would be.”

URS, an engineering corporation, is guiding the planning initiatives for the project.

“They want to see more opportunities for pedestrian mobility both east and west and along Division Street. They’re concerned about safety so we concentrated on recommendations that would improve the safety and mobility on the street,” she said.

The city will decide whether to proceed.

A steering committee will decide what the future looks like. It consists of residents from the Central, Kids Creek and Slabtown neighborhoods, business owners, parks and recreation members, and state and local government officials.

The city wants to redesign Division Street to address traffic problems including speed, noise and neighborhoods, according to Ben Bifoss, the city manager.

Kirk Steudle, the Department of Transportation director, said Traverse City is “a real interesting issue.

“Six or seven counties came around to figure out how they want to grow what transportation looks like, and where the residential areas are. They’ve some grand ideas in their community visioning sessions,” Steudle said.

He said, “I don’t view the state Transportation Department as the authority that comes in and say ‘Here is what you need to do.’ I view our role as helping the region advance and develop,” he said.

“However, you have to work with the infrastructure you have. You can’t just wipe the place clean and start all over again,” Steudle said.

There is no estimate yet of the cost of the proposed project, Bifoss said.

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Filed under: State Agencies

Teen pregnancy rate down, state education increases

By MEGAN DURISIN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Teen births are experiencing their first decline nationwide in four years, and a Department of Community Health (DCH) initiative is working to further prevent them in Michigan.

“There’s been a nationwide decline of 2 percent, the first decline since 2005,” said Julie McKeiver, the director of communications at Planned Parenthood of West and Northern Michigan in Grand Rapids. “That’s good news, but the rate we’re at right now is still too high.”

Statistics from 2008, the most current available, show the teen birth rate at 41.5 births per 1,000 teens ages 15 to 19.

The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative began in 2009 and it launched a Web site in March to bring DCH projects together, said Kara Anderson, teen pregnancy prevention consultant at the department.

Its goal is to encourage teens to start having sex at a later age and to increase condom and contraceptive use.

Currently, the initiative is funding four agencies: Baldwin Family Health Care, Planned Parenthood of Mid and South Michigan in Ann Arbor, Planned Parenthood of West and Northern Michigan, and a District 10 Health Department program in Wexford and Oceana counties.

“Last year was the pilot, and two out of the four agencies started doing something,” Anderson said. “Kids are learning. It’s had a great impact.”

McKeiver said her agency’s programs in Kent and Muskegon counties were part of the pilot.

Participants complete an evaluation before and after the 15-hour program to measure what they’ve learned, she said.

“The test results have been quite dramatic,” McKeiver said. “Most students are getting well over 90 percent grades on testing, when initially many of them know only a few of the answers.”

The grants were based on the agencies’ number of youth, planned curriculums and capacity, Anderson said.

“This year, they were each slated to receive $100,000, but due to budget cuts, they only received $90,000,” Anderson said, adding that the budget will be re-evaluated next year.

Each participating program must target at least 250 youth for 14 hours of education, which helps them gain skills in decision-making, communication and resistance to peer pressure.

The program for youth ages 10 to 18 includes school health classes and after-school programs, including community advisory councils, awareness activities, media campaigns and education.

“We’re targeting 1,000 youth and probably getting another couple of thousand that are still receiving some education,” Anderson said.

Their parents are also required to receive two to four hours of education, which Anderson said is crucial because they play the most important role in teens’ sexuality education.

McKeiver said her agency is on track to reach the 250 target. The agency seeks diversity in age, gender and background of students.

“We’ve done programs with three different churches, with a group of children that were adopted and one with refugee children,” McKeiver said. “They had to have three different translators along with the educators.”

McKeiver said students who show leadership potential during the workshops have the opportunity to become peer leaders and help adult educators teach sessions later. The participants said they like learning from someone their age who is knowledgeable about the issues, she said.

When Michigan Public Radio interviewed peer leaders recently, McKeiver said she was “blown away” at what they had learned.

“Two to three months before, people had been asking them direct questions and they were shy about it,” McKeiver said. “Last month they were going like wildfire. It’s so obvious that it’s a direct impact of the program.”

For the leaders, it’s about much more than sex education, she said.

Jane Zehnder-Merrell, Kids Count Director at the Michigan League for Human Services, said a recent study found that mid-sized counties with populations between 20,000 and 65,000 have had the highest teen pregnancy rates in Michigan from 2002 to 2007, which she called a “surprising finding.”

“It’s significant in that for five years there was a steady increase in mid-sized counties,” she said. “Frankly, though, the rate’s not back up to where it was in 2000.”

Zehnder-Merrell said Michigan compares well to other states, ranking 16th in the country for the lowest teen birth rate.

“But the U.S. has the worst teen birth rate of any other industrialized country,” she said. “And not by a little bit, by double.”

McKeiver said teen mothers are often poorer than non-mothers and, in many cases, don’t finish high school or go to college.

“It’s not impossible to go on and be successful as a teen parent, but it’s much harder,” McKeiver said.

According to the DCH, Michigan teen births for females ages 15 to 19 decreased from 20,224 in 1990 to 12,493 in 2007.

Anderson said an increase in public service commercials, greater birth control awareness and more child and adolescent centers may be responsible for the decline.

“Local communities are addressing it,” Anderson said. “It’s not only a statewide initiative.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Social Policy

Michigan roads safer, highway deaths down

By CHANTAL COOK
Capital News Service

LANSING – A new study shows that the state’s roads are getting safer.

Traffic deaths were at a record-low 871 in 2009, down 11 percent from 2008 when there were 980 deaths on the roads, according to the Office of Highway Safety Planning.

Anne Readett, communication manager for the agency, said police enforcement has played a big part in promoting safer roads, including drunken driving arrests.

She said that the state has had the highest rate of seat belt use in the country for the past two years.

According to the Michigan Traffic Crash Facts Data Query, Kent and Montcalm counties were among those with fewer crashes in 2009.

Montcalm reported fewer crashes, from 2,851 to 2,726. Alcohol-associated crashes went down from 95 to 93. Fatal crashes dropped by half to three, and injuries from 357 to 346.

Kent reported 17,815 traffic crashes in 2009, down from 19,780 in 2008. Crashes associated with drinking decreased from 815 to 773, fatal crashes went down slightly from 55 to 51 and injuries dropped from 3,570 to 3,376.

Tom Bruff, manager of the transportation program at the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, said due to the poor economy, high unemployment and high gas prices, fewer people are driving.

“Fewer people driving makes less cars and chances for people to get in crashes,” Bruff said.

Charles Compton, data area specialist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, said along with fewer people on the roads and increased seat belt use, cars are being built to reduce chances of fatalities and injuries.

“Cars will protect you better than a seat belt,” Compton said.

Bruff said drivers, especially young ones, are better educated about traffic safety.

The state’s graduated driver license program gives teens more extended education on driving and teaches students to avoid being distracted on the road, he said.

Bruff said distracted driving is a serious problem.

“Texting, applying make-up, eating and other factors are a problem and can cause harm while driving,” Bruff said.

He said he favors a texting ban and other steps the state can take to help people stay focused on the road.

“It’s not a right to drive, it’s a privilege,” Bruff said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Social Policy

Highways, bridges at risk as transportation money dwindles

By DANIEL OPSOMMER
Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan is at risk of losing nearly half a billion dollars in federal aid for transportation funding in 2011 due to declining income from fuel taxes.

Beginning in October, the state faces an $84 million shortfall in fuel tax revenue to receive federal matching funds, according to the Department of Transportation (MDOT).

But fuel tax hike proposals are stalled in the Legislature.

Without full federal aid, the state transportation budget for 2011 would be $601 million, a 58 percent decline from 2010 when it was $1.4 billion.

“If we don’t resolve our revenue shortfall, we aren’t going to have funding for road and bridge repairs, much less for snow removal and salt,” said MDOT Director Kirk Steudle.

“Drivers pay an 18.4 cent per-gallon federal tax so it would be a shame if we don’t receive our share of funding,” he said.

Projections from MDOT show the state could lose nearly $2.1 billion through 2014 because Michigan won’t be able to match all the funds it’s eligible for.

Those matches provide $8 from Washington for every $2 the state raises.

Reps. Richard Ball, R-Bennington Township, and Pam Byrnes, D-Lyndon Township, are the sponsors of tax hike legislation to close the gap.

Their proposal would initially increase the gas tax from 19 cents to 23 cents a gallon, and the diesel tax would rise from 15 to 21 cents. Then on Jan. 1, 2013, both taxes would rise to 27 cents a gallon.

Ball blamed Michigan’s shrinking population, tightening family budgets and the emergence of more fuel-efficient vehicles for the drop in revenue.

“The people who don’t want taxes of any kind at anytime won’t like this but they need to face reality,” Ball said. “The roads and bridges are deteriorating every year from traffic and the freeze-and-thaw cycles, and the state needs funding to repair them.”

Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, said he opposes a tax increase.

“Transportation funding is a serious issue for our state, but I believe we need to look at alternatives to increasing the fuel tax,” Schmidt said. “We just can’t place anymore burden on the citizens of Michigan.”

Schmidt said he supports a plan by the House Republican Caucus to allocate money to transportation from other areas of the budget to ensure that Michigan receives federal aid without higher taxes.

Meanwhile, Sen. Judson Gilbert, R-Algonac, is sponsoring legislation that would eliminate the gap between gas and diesel fuel taxes by increasing the diesel tax from 15 to 19 cents.

The diesel tax hasn’t risen since 1984, while the gas tax rose in 1997.

According to MDOT, more than 90 percent of the 10,000 miles of state highways and bridges are in good condition today.

Steudle said less than half will be in good condition by 2020 even if the state receives the maximum possible federal funding, and only a quarter of the mileage will be in good condition if the state doesn’t receive federal match dollars.

In addition, he said more than 90 percent of the bridges will be maintained if the state receives all possible federal aid, but only 84 percent will be in good condition by 2020 without the money from Washington.

“Highways would deteriorate immensely if we lose our federal funding because we have to place a greater emphasis on bridge repair, which is also more expensive,” Steudle said.

Under the House legislation, all the extra tax revenue would go into a new transportation investment fund that could be used only for road and bridge repairs.

Ball said, “I want to ensure that the departments receiving this money put it entirely toward road and bridge repair and start tightening their budgets.”

The House proposal would also create a commission to study and recommend long-term alternatives for the current fuel tax system.

And that’s an issue gaining attention in the push for electric and hybrid vehicles.

Sarah Hubbard, senior vice president of government relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber, said the current decline in gas tax revenue will accelerate as the number of electric and hybrid cars increases.

Mike Nystrom, vice president of government and public relations at the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, said, “Altering and raising vehicle registration fees is one option being discussed because those vehicles still have four tires on the road, and they’re a user of our transit system.”

MDOT’s Steudle said implementing tolls isn’t a practical solution because the revenue wouldn’t be enough to cover current shortfalls and because Michigan’s highways were built with federal subsidies under an agreement they would remain free. Under that agreement, the state would have to repay the federal government for highways converted to toll roads.

Steudle noted that most states collect tolls to tax people traveling through their state.

“A lot of the driving we do in Michigan is just us because we’re a peninsula,” Steudle said. “In Ohio and Indiana, 70 percent of the traffic on interstates is driving straight through.”

Ball and Byrnes’ legislation is pending in the House Transportation Committee, while Gilbert’s bill is pending in the Senate Transportation Committee.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Budget

Air quality grades depend on who’s doing testing

By JOSH GARVEY
Capital News Service

LANSING – Unlike neighboring states, Michigan doesn’t require inspections of vehicle emissions and has no plans to start because its air quality meets ozone standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) .

Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois have counties that require such tests because they fail to meet the EPA standard for maximum ozone levels in the air. Testing by the federal agency determines the need for vehicle tests on a county by county basis.

Breathing ozone can lead to lung problems, including worsened asthma and, over time, scarring of the lungs.

Doug Aburano, an EPA environmental engineer in Chicago, said that Detroit and other parts of the state didn’t meet the EPA’s previous standard but the city “has really cleaned up its act.”

Not everyone is satisfied with current ozone levels in the state, even if they’re acceptable to the EPA. The American Lung Association releases annual State of the Air grades for quality in different counties throughout the country. Last year, all 22 Michigan counties that received a grade got an “F.”

“Emissions testing is something we would definitely support,” said Patricia Volz, senior director of communications for the association’s Midland States region based in Norwalk, Ohio. “Many states have opted to use vehicle emission testing as a way to remove problem vehicles from the roadway and it may be a good solution for Michigan.”

The association isn’t currently promoting legislation to require testing in Michigan because of insufficient financial resources to tackle every issue it would like to, Volz said.

Robert McCann of the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (DNRE) said there was a testing program in Southeast Michigan until the mid-to-late 1990s. It was discontinued when the state met the federal ozone standards at the time.

“At this point we don’t see a need for the test,” he said.

The EPA’s standards are based on ozone levels low to the ground. It’s formed when gases from car exhaust and other sources interact with organic chemicals such as methane while exposed to sunlight.

If ozone levels worsen in an area, EPA guidelines require more programs to control the pollutant.

When Michigan was first tested under current standards in 2004, many counties, including Wayne, Allegan, Kalamazoo and Livingston, were listed as “marginal.” Today, all counties except Allegan comply with the ozone standard, the EPA’s Aburano said.

Allegan wants the EPA to raise its ranking from “marginal” to “in attainment.”

Aburano said his agency is likely to do so, based on the latest test results.

The DNRE’s McCann said that part of the reason for Michigan’s ozone improvement is state residents’ habit of buying new cars.

“The reality is that Michigan tends to have one of the newest car fleets on the road,” he said. “Those cars have lower emissions and different types of control equipment that other states with older fleets might not have.”

Volz of the lung association agreed that most Michigan vehicles would easily pass an emissions test, but that doesn’t mean there would be no value in testing.

“It’s the vehicles that don’t pass the test that are a concern and need to be fixed to reduce their emission impact on the air that people breathe,” she said.

McCann noted that vehicle testing was unpopular when it was required, and provided little benefit.

“The way it was set up at the time, it exempted most cars that probably would have failed the test to begin with,” he said. “If your car was over a certain age, you probably didn’t have to get the test done.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Environment

Propsal would hike charitable gaming license fees

By CHENQI GUO
Capital News Service

LANSING – Most charitable gaming licenses would become more expensive under legislation intended to increase state revenue by $2.5 million annually.

Charities are experiencing significant decreases in donations at a time when greater numbers of people are coming to them for assistance, due to the long economic downturn in the state and the high unemployment and under-employment rates, the sponsor, Rep. Harold Haugh, D-Roseville, said.

Haugh said the main purpose of his bill is to “protect the charitable organizations.”

In part, the bill would increase license fees and create a new location license for millionaire parties.

Millionaire parties, also known as “Las Vegas parties,” are a form of charitable gaming that allows organizations to offer casino-type table games such as poker, dice, and roulette to raise money. Millionaire party applications have increased over the previous year.

The bill would require the Lottery Bureau to hire four people to process applications. Under the bill, for example, the license fee for a “large bingo” would increase from $150 to $175 and an annual charity game license would increase from $200 to $400.

In March, the bureau’s Charitable Gaming Division has approved 741 applications for licenses, compared to 722 in March 2009. Between last Oct. 1 and March 31, the division issued 4,565 licenses, up from 3,805 for the same period a year earlier, said Andi Brancato, the Lottery public relations officer.

However, the Michigan Nonprofit Association worries that the legislation would place a heavier financial burden on organizations that use charitable gaming.

Lisa Sommer, the association’s public relations manager, said supporters of the bill “indicated that the reason for the increased fees was to provide more staffing for Charitable Gaming to help oversee the processing of charitable gaming licenses, which have increased in number dramatically over the last few years.

“However, the funding from these license fees goes to the overall Lottery Bureau, which is already operating on a surplus,” she said.

And association President Kyle Caldwell said, “We have a policy of not endorsing legislation that imposes fees on nonprofits to do what government is structured to do. To raise these fees on nonprofits at a rate of 30 to100 percent and provide no guarantee that nonprofits will see any sort of benefits for these increased fees is not something that we can support.”

Co-sponsors include Reps. Lesia Liss, D-Warren; Dan Scripps, D-Leland; Jimmy Womack, D-Detroit and Roy Schmidt, D-Grand Rapids.

The House has passed the bill which is awaiting action in the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Legislation

State report hits health disparities

By CHRISTINE HOMAN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Members of minority groups suffer from more health problems than whites, according to a report by the Department of Community Health (DCH).

The report uses data from a statewide telephone survey and death rates to show many members of such groups have higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and sexually transmitted diseases.

Such disparities combined lead to a higher rate of premature death, the department said.

As an example, the survey cited a 13.8 percent rate of diabetes among blacks, compared to 8 percent among whites.

The DCH has declared April as Minority Health Month and is sponsoring events to educate the public about the disparities, with an emphasis on men’s health.

Marvin Cato, a consultant and program coordinator for the Greater Lansing African American Health Institute, said he became involved because he’s concerned as a black man.

“I understand the importance of men’s health and the health inequity that exists when it comes to treating minorities,” said Cato.

Jacquetta Hinton, a DCH program specialist, said there are many reasons for health disparities, including socio-economic factors such as housing, education and employment.

“People who are better-educated have access to better types of health care, as well as higher income levels. The higher your socio-economic status is, the better health outcome you have and the longer you’ll live,” Hinton said.

Environmental quality factors also affect overall health, Hinton said. She gave the example of Southeast Detroit where poor air quality impairs the health of residents.

Hinton also said cultural and language barriers make it more difficult for some ethnic and minority residents to receive medical treatment, which worsens health disparities

Patrick Jackson, a DCH program coordinator, said that many members of minority and ethnic groups mistrust health care providers because of past negative experiences.

Hinton said that the department is combating the problem on several fronts, including education.

“What we found is the more someone learns about an issue, the better they’re able to take control of it,” Hinton said.

The department is also building the capacity of local communities to close the gap, according to Jackson. For example, the DCH has given 16 grants to local organizations around the state to help them educate their communities.

Hinton said gathering information about smaller ethnic and racial groups, for which there is little data, is also important to identify their health-related problems

Hinton said that the impact of health disparities will become a larger problem if something isn’t done.

“If we have a health disparity issue where minorities are dying prematurely and living a lower quality of life health-wise, we’re decreasing our competiveness around the world,” Hinton said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Social Policy

Airports hurt by reduced funding

By BRANDON HOWELL
Capital News Service

LANSING – Less state funding has caused Michigan airports to make changes to make ends meet, such as higher landing fees.

Department of Transportation (MDOT) Director Kirk Steudle said shrinking aviation fuel tax revenue is one reason for the airports’ financial woes.

“The aviation fuel tax is three cents per gallon,” he said. “Commercial aircraft are more fuel-efficient now. They used to fly around with four engines but now they’re flying around with two, so the consumption is going down.”

Michigan’s aviation fuel tax hasn’t been increased since it was introduced in 1929.

A proposal to increase the tax is pending in the House Transportation Committee. Its sponsors are Rep. Gabe Leland, D-Detroit; Marie Donigan, D-Royal Oak; Steven Lindberg, D-Marquette; Pam Byrnes, D-Chelsea; Harold Haugh, D-Roseville; Michael Lahti, D-Hancock; and Judy Nerat, D-Wallace.

Steudle said less tax revenue directly hurts airports.

“For the past six or eight years, the money going into the aeronautics fund has decreased,” he said. “We’ve cut everything except limited essential programs.”

The Michigan Air Service Program is among those hit. Eliminated five years ago, it had provided marketing funds for airports, according to Janet Foran, public information officer for MDOT.

“It was also intended to recruit and retain air service for the state’s 18 air carrier airports,” she said. “It was a very highly regarded program that became a national model for states interested in developing air service.”

The program is sorely missed, said Billi McRoberts, manager of the Alpena County Regional Airport.

“We used the funds to market our airport,” she said. “Alpena County doesn’t have the advertising money now, so for small airports where we don’t bring in a lot of revenue and aren’t self-supporting, those programs were very important.”

McRoberts said her airport now has “very minimal” advertising and marketing funds.

Steudle said regional airports are also dealing with the adverse effects of lower passenger traffic.

Such is the case in Alpena, where commercial passenger traffic has dropped since 2007. Delta is its only commercial carrier.

In additional, the airport has lost county funds, McRoberts said, creating further financial problems.

“We had to raise our landing fee from $1.50 per thousand pounds of gross aircraft weight to $2,” McRoberts said. “The county cut the appropriation funding, so we had to make up the difference.”

Keith Kaspari, manager of Sawyer International Airport in the Upper Peninsula, said his airport – which handles more than half of all passenger traffic in the U.P. – has been losing passengers for a couple of years.

“It was an unfortunate year in 2008 because of the economy,” he said. “We had almost a 20 percent reduction in overall passenger traffic. Complicating that was 2009, when we had almost a 5 percent drop.”

Kaspari said elimination of MDOT’s Michigan Air Service Program has hurt his airport too, but that it comes as no surprise considering the economic climate.

“Since 2008 and 2009,” he said, “air carriers have been operating fewer aircraft, flying fewer routes and flying smaller aircraft and more fuel-efficient airplanes, which results in a decrease in fuel tax revenue. That’s then translated to the suspension of programs.”

Kaspari said Sawyer is doing more e-mail contacts and more promotion among civic organizations, trade groups, hospitals, universities and other customers. Those are cheaper alternatives to the kind of marketing made possible by the Michigan Air Service Program.

The airport also increased landing fees for Delta and American Airlines in 2008.

Instead of charging 30 cents per thousand pounds of landed weight as it had for many years, it now charges either a set fee based on landed weight or per inbound passenger.

“It’s kind of a hybrid landing fee methodology that seems to have worked and been received very well by the airlines,” Kaspari said.

Things are looking up for Sawyer though, he said.

On April 6, Delta began two non-stop daily flights each from Gwinn to Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul on 50-seat regional jets. Before that, Sawyer offered four daily trips to Detroit on 34-seat Saab jets. Sawyer also had daily flights to Minneapolis-St. Paul, but that service was terminated by Delta in August 2009 due to decreased passenger traffic.

“We’re real pleased we can now boast that,” Kaspari said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Economy

Bridge officials mull easy-pass toll system

By LAURA FOSMIRE
Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan is contemplating adding its three major toll bridges to an easy-pass system similar to the toll-collection method used throughout the Northeastern United States and parts of the Midwest, but many obstacles stand in the way.

The system would allow vehicles with a permit on their windshields to pass the toll booths without stopping.

The Mackinac Bridge linking the Upper and Lower peninsulas, the International Bridge between Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. and Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, and the Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario, currently use an electronic toll system similar to debit cards.

The Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, and the Detroit-Windsor tunnel are privately owned and not part of the state system.

Chuck Chrapko, president of Blue Water Bridge Canada, said “we have our own debit card system in-house,” said Chuck Chrapko, president of Blue Water Bridge Canada.

The debit card uses radio frequency identification, which is a “tap-and-go kind of thing” that emits a signal readable by another device on-site. Unlike easy-pass systems, however, it still requires vehicle to stop to process the transaction.

Chrapko said Blue Water Bridge Canada is looking into other electronic options to make things easier on employees and equipment.

“Right now our toll collectors have to reach out a window to either grab cash or our in-house debit card,” he said. “So they reach up to the cab of the truck, bring the card down, swipe it and return it to the driver. It causes wear-and-tear on the employees’ shoulders.”

Customers can also pay with coins and tokens tossed into a toll basket.

“It involves a lot of hardware to take that change and process the transaction,” Chrapko said. “If you can remove the need for tokens with an electronic system, then you’ve got less hardware to worry about breaking down.”

Mike Johnston, tolling manager for the International Bridge, said its automated toll lanes increase efficiency.

“What we’ve done over the past couple of years is to automate our toll lanes,” he said. “Those lanes are for our commuter base, which is approximately 70 percent of our total travelers.”

Johnston explained that the system uses electronic cards so drivers don’t need to wait for a toll collector.

The Mackinac Bridge has had a form of electronic tolling since 2002, said Bob Sweeney, executive secretary of the Mackinac Bridge Authority.

Drivers can use cards with a computer chip that’s recognized by an electronic reader and deducts the toll from a pre-paid account, he said.

Sweeney said that the cards enjoy great success among commuters.

“For the past three months, January through March, we’ve had 102,000 trips across the bridge using the proximity readers,” he said. “Those are mostly people commuting on a daily basis.”

Johnston of the International Bridge said drivers may not readily accept an easy-pass system out of concern that further automation will put toll collectors out of a job.

“The fact is, we have the same number of staff as we did prior to the automated lanes,” he said. “It’s proven to be a positive step, though, for us here. You just can’t eliminate the human factor from this environment.”

Chrapko of Blue Water Bridge Canada agreed.

“Electronic tolling is just an enhancement from the customer experience standpoint,” he said. “It’s been well-documented that in the next 10 to 15 years, the business of toll collection will be all electronic. People retire, or we’ll find them other jobs here that they can migrate to.”

The Mackinac Bridge’s Sweeney said that all three bridge authorities meet regularly together to discuss a common tolling system.

Kirk Steudle, director of the Department of Transportation (MDOT), said bridge officials are concerned about maintaining traffic flow.

“Part of the issue with electronic tolling is it allows you to go free-flow,” he said.

But vehicles crossing the International and Blue Water bridges must stop at the U.S.-Canadian border, he said.

“At the Mackinac Bridge, we want them to stop because we need to see what’s on their truck and how much it weighs,” Steudle said.

Sweeney said that the brief stop at the bridge also gives tourists a chance to ask questions about the U.P.

“Our toll collectors provide a lot of information,” he said. “It’s more of a customer convenience. We found that since we’re in a tourist area that a lot of our customers pull up and like quick general information about finding a place to eat and a place to stay.”

Sweeney said truck weight limits are monitored carefully by two sensors near the bridge and by the State Police.

“If a truck bumps one of the scales, we’ll hold them until someone can come and inspect. It happens very infrequently because the drivers crossing the bridge know that they have a very good chance of being inspected,” he said.

Sweeney predicted that electronic tolling will take over entirely within a couple of decades, but added no dramatic changes are expected, based on current traffic patterns.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: State Agencies

State offers online access to hunting information

By JOSH GARVEY
Capital News Service

LANSING – Joel Bauer cultivates information about where he’s going to hunt to better understand how to use the terrain to his advantage.

Bauer, the president of the Northeast Michigan chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society, said hunters develop a network of information to keep them up to speed on the conditions around the state.

“I’ve got a buddy of mine who works at the U.S. Department of Agriculture here in Alpena and he’s pretty connected to some Internet resources through his job,” he said.

A new online service from the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) may help hunters streamline that information-gathering process.

The DNRE’s new Mi-Hunt program provides information such as the location of public land open to hunting.

“One of the big complaints we hear is that it’s tough to find out where the public land is and find these places to hunt,” said Michigan United Conservation Clubs deputy director Tony Hansen. “The DNRE’s Web site hasn’t been the most friendly for that.

“Anything it can do to make it easier is a good thing,” Hansen said.

Bauer said that if he doesn’t know the area he thoroughly researches where he’ll hunt before going out.

“When you’re hunting in a new area, you check it out pretty good,” he said. “You’ll call the local DNRE or someone else if you know people in the area to find out what you can.”

David Forstat, a geographic information services manager for the DNRE, said Mi-Hunt helps users organize that type information.

“When people hunt grouse here, they look for aspen trees, and with this application you can identify where these aspen stands of certain size are throughout the state,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s like finding gold, but it can point you to where the conditions might exist to find grouse.”

Forstat said the Web site can do the same with other types of game.

He said the program began with a grant from the National Sports Shooting Foundation and combines information that DNRE already has with linked points on a map. The Web site can show different hunting areas, the trees there, street maps, aerial photography, and the topography of the land.

The MUCC’s Hansen said that out-of-state hunters can benefit from a centralized information source.

“Most of the nonresident hunters are going to be bird hunters or, to a lesser degree, deer hunters,” he said.

“I hunt out of state a bunch, and that’s exactly what I do,” he said. “I’m getting on every online source I can find and using satellite photos and Google Maps with topography overlays to figure out what the terrain is like and any forest cover or crop cover.”

The DNRE’s Forstat said the DNRE is developing similar online tools for other outdoor activities.

“Now that we’ve got a Mi-Hunt, we’re looking to add Mi-Fish and Mi-Hike, things that can be tied into the same system to get people in to use our natural resources,” he said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: State Agencies

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