Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Imported Canadian oil raises pipeline concerns

By EMMA OGUTU
Capital News Service

LANSING — Plans to increase the import of a raw form of oil piped from Canada through the Midwest are worrying environment groups that say the trend could pose health and environmental dangers in the Great Lakes Basin.

A new report highlights what the groups say are escalating risks of major pipeline spills of the oil, which is a potentially unstable blend of bitumen and natural gas.

“The problem is that this form of oil has a lot more corrosive elements and requires more operational heat and pressure to push through pipelines which are not built to handle these kinds of pressure,” said Josh Mogerman, senior media associate at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Chicago office.

Also involved with the report are the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation and the Pipeline Safety Trust.

The crude oil contains up to 20 times more acid and is 70 times thicker than regular crude oil. It also has more abrasive, sandy particles that can damage the interior of pipelines, leading to major oil spills, the report said.

But John Griffin, executive director of the Associated Petroleum Industries of Michigan, said the report is part of a campaign strategy to stop the use of fossil fuel.

He also said that pipelines in the U.S. are designed to handle all sorts of crude oil.

“This crude oil is no more different than any other type of crude oil in the industry,” Griffin said.

Griffin noted that fuel, which is processed from the crude oil, is a crucial and popular source of energy in the U.S.

Pipelines that sometimes carry the oil run through the Great Lakes region close to lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie. The pipelines also run under the St. Clair River, which drains into lakes St. Clair and Erie and the Detroit River.

Mogerman said that initially the U.S. imported the tar sands oil from Canada after a partial refining process.

“But the refining capacity in Canada is full, so what’s being shipped in greater and greater amounts in recent years is this diluted bitumen which is mixed with other products to make it thin enough to move through the pipelines,” he said.

The refining process takes away abrasive particles like sand and also removes silicate and sulfur to come up with a form of synthetic crude oil, a less corrosive form, according to the report.

Without any changes in safety standards, diluted bitumen imports to the U.S. increased almost five fold in 2010, according to the report. In addition, Canadian tar sands producers plan to triple the amount in the next eight years.

Kate Colarulli, who runs the “dirty fuels” campaign at the Sierra Club in Washington, said that the diluted bitumen is a toxic substance that poses elevated risks to the public.

According to the report, it contains heavy metals and gases that can cause spinal and respiratory problems in humans and wildlife if high levels accumulate.

“If the government is going to allow the importation of this oil, it should come up with new guidelines that meet the unique transportation requirements of the bitumen oil,” Colarulli said.

But Griffin said that all U.S. pipelines are manufactured, designed and maintained according to regulations set by the U.S. Department of Transportation to ensure safety.

And Lorraine Grymala, community affairs manager at Enbridge-U.S., said oil companies like Enbridge, which is a member of the Associated Petroleum Industries, invest millions of dollars each year on pipeline maintenance and installation.

Mogerman of the NRDC said little research has been done to assess the safety requirements of transporting the material although legislation to change pipeline safety standards is pending in Congress.

Rita Chapman, director of Sierra Club’s clean water program in Michigan, said increased imports of the oils is hazardous to the Great Lakes, a critical source of drinking water for more than 33 million people.

“We need to find other energy sources – renewable sources – rather than tapping into these corrosive sources that are putting our water sources at risk,” she said.

Chapman also said that the public could face something similar to the Gulf oil disaster if a pipeline bursts near one of the Great Lakes.

“We have to change the standards of oil transportation, especially around the Great Lakes, to prevent an incident similar to that of the Kalamazoo River,” said Beth Wallace, the community outreach regional coordinator at the National Wildlife Federation’s, Great Lakes Regional Center in Ann Arbor.

Last year, a ruptured pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy Partners spilled more than 800,000 gallons of oil into a creek that drain into the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge Energy is a subsidiary of Canada’s Enbridge Inc.

The environmental groups called for a re-assessment of pipelines along heavily populated and environmentally sensitive areas in the Great Lakes Basin and said federal regulators should inspect pipelines instead of oil company inspectors.

Federal regulations require oil companies to inspect pipelines every five years — but only if their lines cross heavily populated or environmentally sensitive areas.

Mogerman said that more transparency is needed.

“The public needs to know that there is a significant risk related to transporting diluted bitumen,” he said. “And that is our major concern.”

Filed under: Uncategorized

Property tax exemption proposed for nonprofit housing groups

By SARA QAMAR
Capital News Service

LANSING — A new bill would exempt nonprofit housing organizations such as Habitat for Humanity from property taxes on homes being built for low-income families.

The bill is from Rep. Dale Zorn, who was a county commissioner in Monroe County for 20 years.

Zorn, R-Ida, said some municipalities already grant such exemptions, but it should become a statewide policy.

When such organizations have been paying property taxes, sometimes they can’t afford the payments.

“They end up having to re-sell them rather than re-build them,” Zorn said.

Once a low-income family takes ownership of a property, the tax would be reinstated under the bill.

“In most cases it will only take a year or two,” he said.

The savings to nonprofits could free up additional resources to invest in construction, said Rep. Bruce Rendon, R-Lake City, a co-sponsor of the bill.

“It would help to keep that money in their coffers and to look for another host family to do another project,” he said.

Other sponsors include Reps. Peter Lund, R-Shelby Township; Mark Ouimet, R-Scio Township; Nancy Jenkins, R-Clayton; and Pat Somerville, R-New Boston.

Habitat for Humanity is a community asset, Rendon said, and gives all people involved a sense of worth and direction.

“This would actually aid local economies in communities by creating work and housing. I think the plus is much more than what it would cost the local government,” Rendon said.

But if the bill goes through, it could create a division between nonprofits and local communities, resulting in a weaker program, Michigan Townships Association legislative liaison Bill Anderson said.

Under current law, nonprofits are required to ask the city or other municipality’s permission for the tax exemption. But under the bill, nonprofits would be sidestepping the dialogue, Anderson said, instead of working with the community.

“It’s a great program,” but many times people feel the organizations are not contributing revenue to the already cash-strapped communities they are working in, he said.

Most properties are donated by the city or lank banks and are dilapidated houses, which are not paying taxes, said Habitat for Humanity Michigan President Sandy Pearson.

“What we’re actually doing is creating a situation where we are building tax-generating property, so we feel we do contribute to the community,” Pearson said.

The bill is pending in the House Tax Policy Committee.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Legislation

Universities lure back their dropouts

By SARA QAMAR
Capital News Service

LANSING – Public universities in Michigan are trying to recruit back students who have dropped out before completing their degrees.

Because of declining enrollment rates, universities are looking for nontraditional students to keep numbers up according to the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan.

For example, Western Michigan University’s registrar’s office searches dropouts from the past 10 years.

The focus however, remains on retaining current students and those who dropped out within the past three years, said Keith Hearit, vice provost for strategic and enrollment management.

“Once they leave without a degree, it becomes much harder for them to come back,” Hearit said.

When WMU students who have more than 90 credits haven’t returned, the registrar’s office opens up active files, contacting them at least once a year for five years.

“It’s one of those things where you can see that it has clearly weighed upon them,” Hearit said.

The office sends out about 500 letters a year with a 10 percent response rate. For students who decide to come back, the office shows them how to get back on track.

“Certainly you have to take a fresh look at what they’ve done to see how they can reapply those credits towards graduation,” he said.

“As I watch what’s happening with the economy, certainly the idea that a degree trains you for something is entrenched. And we do find that for many of our prospective graduates, the degree becomes the first run-through that employers go through to bring the applicants down to a manageable size,” Hearit said.

According to the Presidents Council, 50,000 to 60,000 state residents have some college education, but have not finished a bachelor’s degree.

Wayne State University uses a variety of processes to drawback students who may not have returned in one or two semesters.

When programs are not offered anymore, students may need to change majors, university registrar Linda Falkiewicz said. In such situations the university advises them about majors.

The office of the registrar, she said, keeps track of how long students have been gone and questions students about why they’re leaving and when they’re coming back.

“Money is always an issue,” but many people leave for personal reasons such as marriage, children, surgeries or to work because they prefer not to borrow, she said.

In the two years the registrar’s office has implemented such efforts, it has increased overall interaction and communication with students, she said, which contributes to Wayne State’s low number of non-returning students.

“Of tens of thousands of students, 10 or 20 wander off and don’t come back,” she said.

Wayne State has the largest count of part-time students among Michigan’s 15 public universities.

Because non-traditional students’ situations vary dramatically, there is an unmet need to cater to these individuals, said Presidents Council executive director Michael Boulus.

Most of those students transferred from other colleges rather than coming straight from high school, he said.

Returning students need to be given a plan that they can complete in one or two years, he said.

“You’ve got to entice them with the success and a roadmap that says you can do this given your job, given your family,” Boulus said.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Education

Children bounce more from school to school in tough economic times

By KATHLEEN LOFTUS
Capital News Service

LANSING– The economy’s downturn is triggering an increase in the number of children transferring between school districts, experts say.

Districts, schools and students are impacted due to parents’ job loss, evictions, foreclosures and moves to temporary housing.

The superintendent of public schools in Big Rapids, Thomas Langdon, said the trend shows student mobility was higher in the past year than five to 10 years ago.

Langdon said the transfer pattern is now routine for schools because of the economy.

It’s trying for everyone involved because people are forced to move and savings eventually run out, he said.

In recent years, families have moved because of adverse conditions, rather than for a better life or job Langdon said.

Bill Price, an Eastern Michigan University education professor, said the housing industry is devastated, and people who lost homes have relocated from their children’s districts.

Some schools in Michigan have an annual turnover rate of a third or more, Price said.

Ypsilanti Public School District public relations director Emma Jackson said transfer rates have increased lately.

Enrollment has dropped from 4,071 in 2006-07 to 3,804 in 2009-10 and is flat this year.

Jackson said, “There is not as big a dip in enrollment numbers as one would expect, but I would speculate that we have lost students due to moving from the area, but we are able to attract students from other areas to maintain close to previous enrollment numbers.”

Ypsilanti is a schools-of-choice district.  Almost 1,000 students who live outside the area have picked the district, Jackson said.

However, Price said there are other factors in the rising tide of transfers.

Others transfer because of school choice options that allow parents to send their children to other districts — often with better technology, facilities or athletics.

“No one is choosing to send their children to poor urban schools by choice. We are a mobile society, and parents opt out of particular districts to place kids in charter schools through inter-district transfer rights,” Price said.

“Education is a commodity — people shop and look for a place that meets their needs, whatever it may be.”

Price said frequent mobility is hard on children because they come in and leave at odd times, making it difficult for teachers to determine their academic development.

Sometimes, new arrivals struggle to find friends as well.

For schools, one hardship is being held accountable for students’ test scores.  Test performances can affect merit pay for teachers.

Price said it’s a dicey situation because scores are based on students teachers may not have had, yet schools are measured by standardized tests.

“When schools get new students and have nothing to do directly with their academic preparation, the scores still reflect back on the school.”

Price said some top-performing schools are constantly growing, but others are losing pupils.

“Kids show up on the doorstep and you take them. There is a constant increase with in-migration and out-migration, but it’s exacerbated by the economy and schools of choice. If a school loses a kid, money follows the student, not the school.”

Districts also face problems in planning for student mobility.  Although they can track past patterns, they don’t know who is coming until they show up, said Price.

Rep. Paul Muxlow, R-Brown City, said if students miss count day — the day the state counts children for appropriations — districts lose per-pupil aid.

Muxlow is a former teacher and counselor in the Lapeer County Intermediate School District.

Langdon, of Big Rapids, said budgeting has become strained as well.

“The budget is cut every year, but the needs get higher. Now we have less resources to accommodate people and programs such as aftercare,” he said

Langdon said that no matter whether students move from different states, cities or counties, the curriculum changes from district to district.

“Everyone wants to educate every child.  We want students in every seat, every day, every year,” he said.

“As you go further and further with this economy, there are more transits, and it’s hard to play catch up when one school teaches the breast stroke then have to learn butterfly at another.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Education

Bill would mandate more foreign language instruction

By JONATHAN GANCI

Capital News Service

 

LANSING– Schools throughout the state may soon be adding foreign languages in elementary and middle schools to their core curriculum.

A bill by Rep. David Nathan, D-Detroit, would require districts to offer at least one foreign language at every level of K-12 schooling.

According to Nathan, the bill, which would take effect in the 2011-12 school year, is intended to better prepare students for a competitive global economy.

Nathan said that Michigan students must compete with not only those in-state and across the country, but abroad.

“Now we know that our economy is a global economy, so we compete with folks all over this world,” Nathan said. “If we are serious about having our kids compete, they have to have a foreign language.”

However, Scott Moellenberndt, the superintendent of Blissfield Community Schools, said that although the principle is good, districts couldn’t afford such a mandate.

“Educationally we know we should be introducing foreign language in the third- or fourth-grade level,” Moellenberndt said, noting that the district has laid off staff in the past two years. “Even though educationally it’s sound, fiscally it’s not.”

State law already requires graduating seniors, starting with the class of 2016, to complete two years of foreign language, according to Emily Spinelli, the Michigan World Language Association’s public affairs liaison and executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese.

Spinelli said Nathan’s bill would allow districts to be better prepared to meet the two-year requirement.

According to Spinelli, a retired Spanish professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, benefits from learning a foreign language spread into many facets of life, including cultural understanding and improvement in other areas of learning.

“People who learn a new language have a richer vocabulary in their first language, better critical thinking skills, do better on their ACTs and are better prepared for global societies,” Spinelli said.

Moellenberndt said that while there is a need for increased foreign language instruction, schools have difficulties not only affording, but providing quality for programs that are already a part of the curriculum.

“We know that costs continue to go up and funds continue to go down. It’s difficult to maintain the programs that we currently have, yet try to do what is best for students,” Moellenberndt said.

While cost is a concern, Nathan said that the issue can’t be viewed as solely about cost.

“If we don’t do it, if we don’t invest, we will fall behind other countries that speak more than one language.” Nathan said. “Their opportunity will be greater than our children’s.”

Currently the Blissfield district offers Spanish in seventh through twelfth grade.

The bill would make the district offer programs at every level, but after cutting $900,000, or about 10 percent, from the budget last year, the district would face tough choices if the bill passes, Moellenberndt said.

Moellenberndt said schools would need more funding if lawmakers impose new mandates.

“That’s the dilemma.  It’s not foreign language — there’s nobody that would argue the benefits of that,” Moellenberndt said.

The bill is pending in the House Education Committee.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

 

Filed under: Education

Court restores freedom-of-information suit against State Police

By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Bill collectors hear the excuse countless times: “The check’s in the mail.”

But when it comes to rejecting freedom of information requests from the public, government agencies must actually mail the letters.

That’s what the Court of Appeal has ruled in reinstating an Ionia County lawsuit against the State Police by a motorist who was told a videotape of her traffic stop didn’t exist.

The controversy stems from a May 2008 incident when a trooper ticketed Nancy Prins’ passenger for failing to wear a seat belt in Boston Township. Prins filed a freedom of information request for the videotape of the traffic stop.

The State Police denied her request, saying that “any in-car video that may have existed is no longer available. Only kept 30 days and reused.”

But when the passenger appeared in court to contest the ticket, however, the prosecutor presented the videotape that the State Police had claimed no longer existed as evidence.

Prins then sued the State Police for violating the freedom of information law.

State law requires public bodies to provide a “full explanation of the reasons for the denial” and to tell requesters about their right to appeal or sue, according to the Attorney General’s office. That requirement includes “notification of the right to receive attorney fees and collect damages.”

Public agencies that fail to comply with the law face possible liability for compensatory damages, punitive damages of $500 and legal fees.

The law sets a 180-day deadline for lawsuits.

A lower-court judge tossed out Prins’ case, saying she waited too long to sue because she started the case 184 days after the State Police wrote its denial letter.

The Court of Appeals disagreed, saying the 180-day clock didn’t start to run until the letter was actually mailed.

“The Legislature intended that the public body undertake an affirmative step reasonably calculated to bring the denial notice to the attention of the requesting party,” Appeals Judge Elizabeth Gleicher said for the unanimous three-member panel.

The decision sends the case back to Ionia County Circuit Court for further proceedings.

 

 

 

Filed under: State Agencies

Proposal would change deer season opening day

By DAN SMALLWOOD
Capital News Service

LANSING – Deer Day on Nov. 15 may be a thing of the past if a bill proposed in the House becomes law.

The legislation would change the beginning of the firearm deer season from Nov. 15 to the second or third Saturday of November, whichever is closer to the current date.

Rep. Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, says the bill would have a beneficial economic impact by getting more hunters in the field.

A study by Michigan State University researchers concluded that opening the season at the beginning of the week reduces hunter numbers throughout the season.

Cotter said Saturday is the best day to get the most hunters out hunting.

“If you don’t get in the field that first day, your chances are greatly reduced,” he said.

Co-sponsors include Reps. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth; Frank Foster, R-Pellston; Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City; Bob Genetski, R-Saugatuck; Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills; and Hugh Crawford, R-Novi.

While past attempts to change deer season have faced steadfast opposition, some groups are now more open to the idea, said Dave Nyberg, the legislative affairs manager for the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC), the state’s largest coalition of outdoors groups.

MUCC, he said, is studying the issue’s potential impact on hunters and wildlife before it takes a stance on the specific legislation.

“We have to look at the factors,” he said, including biological factors such as the impact on deer populations, “social impact on hunters, and whether it would benefit local economies, if at all.”

Hunters, he said, have long enjoyed the “tradition” of Deer Day and, therefore, have mixed feelings about any change.

And while Cotter acknowledged the tradition argument, he said the state should “balance that idea of tradition against potentially millions of dollars” in economic activity.

“Hunters spend a lot of money in local communities,” he said.

The state, he continued, should make it easier for them to do so, as well as to attract more out-of-state hunters. The tradition argument “doesn’t hold water” when weighed against convenience.

The current economic impact of the hunting economy, Nyberg said, is nearly $3.4 billion at retail, but has an even larger $5.9 billion overall ripple effect.

“If there are valid reasons for moving, we’ll support it,” he said. “But we need to make sure we have all the facts correct.”

Nyberg said one important issue in MUCC’s consideration is Michigan’s lackluster hunter replacement numbers. Michigan has the lowest rate in the country, with only 26 new hunters for every 100 who stop hunting. The national average is 69 percent.

Therefore, he said MUCC wants to examine the potential impact of the proposal on young hunters.

Cotter said reversing the downward trend is a potential benefit because the change would make it more convenient for families to participate.

In addition, the legislation would ensure that the 16-day season spans three weekends.

“I think it’s a winner all the way around,” he said of the proposal.

The bill echoes the current firearm deer hunting season in Indiana, which would start the same Saturday, but would still open well before the full deer seasons in Wisconsin and Ohio.

The legislation is pending in the Natural Resources, Tourism, and Outdoor Recreation committee.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

 

Filed under: Uncategorized

Forums promote better railroad access

By PAIGE LaBARGE
Capital News Service

LANSING — An online transportation forum is trying to promote improvements in railroad systems throughout the state.

The website, called michiganbyrail.org, is intended to see what people in different regions want when it comes to improving rails, according to Tim Fischer, deputy policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC).

In addition to the online site, there were 18 public forums around the state.

“In every forum, we found people were interested in expanding the railroad system,” Fischer said.

The purpose of the forum is to see what each city wants and to give residents a way to interact with state programs, Fischer said.

Fischer said the information is going through a series of legislation-related meetings.

“We look at common themes expressed by the public and use that to see how Michigan rails should be fixed,” Fischer said.

One theme appeared in Traverse City, where the participants emphasized tourism and more passenger access to rail service.

“Traverse City wanted to be connected more to other parts of the state. They also wanted more rails out of Chicago and the southern part of Michigan, so more people could travel easier to the area,” Fischer said.

Chris Kolb, president of the MEC, said different communities have different transportation needs, and in Traverse City, people want tourism and visitors.

“Also, gas prices are very high for residents, and better railroad transportation would help to save money,” Kolb said.

More railroad service to northern regions of the state would also be a successful economic development tool for businesses and the tourism industry, Kolb said.

Fischer said other common themes included cities along east-west routes that want better passenger rail connections between Detroit and other large cities like Grand Rapids.

He said the other major theme is a connection among universities throughout Michigan.

“Many students don’t have cars,” Fischer said.

The forum took place because a federal law required each state to create a rail plan, which involved an investigation of the state rail systems, according to Fischer.

“It was for both passenger and freight railroads and it required a public input process,” Fischer said. “This is where we wanted to contribute and the reason why we created the forums.”

Kolb said another common accommodation that people requested was high-speed rail service between Detroit and Chicago.

“Michigan was rewarded with $161 million in federal grants to buy some of the rails between the two major cities to improve them, and we already built some new train stations,” Kolb said. “But we still need more funding to completely finish the high standards we have for transportation.”

With such improvements, people will be able to travel faster and that makes railroad transportation more appealing, he said.

Fischer added that there is only one high-speed rail in the state now, the Wolverine between Chicago and Pontiac.

Allan Green, a Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) railroad safety inspector in Traverse City, said money is a major issue.

“We are in the very beginning of this transportation change and there have been no concrete proposals for the northern parts of Michigan,” Green said. “The reason for this is funding.”

Green said further meetings in Traverse City are in the planning stages.

“For people in Traverse City, easier access is the number-one priority,” Green said.

Dave Lorenz, managing director of Travel Michigan, said better railroad systems would help tourism and allow easier traveling for business.

Travel Michigan is the official state tourism promotion agency.

Lorenz said Travel Michigan is helping to improve tourism through transportation by distributing promotional material at the Amtrak station in Chicago at Union Station.

“We pass out information packets from Michigan travel bureaus, and last year we sold 7,000 travel magazines,” Lorenz said. “We’re doing this to advertise areas in Michigan that aren’t always visited because of limited access in transportation, and hopefully our information can change that.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.Forums Promote better railroad access

By PAIGE LaBARGE
Capital News Service

LANSING — An online transportation forum is trying to promote improvements in railroad systems throughout the state.

The website, called michiganbyrail.org, is intended to see what people in different regions want when it comes to improving rails, according to Tim Fischer, deputy policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC).

In addition to the online site, there were 18 public forums around the state.

“In every forum, we found people were interested in expanding the railroad system,” Fischer said.

The purpose of the forum is to see what each city wants and to give residents a way to interact with state programs, Fischer said.

Fischer said the information is going through a series of legislation-related meetings.

“We look at common themes expressed by the public and use that to see how Michigan rails should be fixed,” Fischer said.

One theme appeared in Traverse City, where the participants emphasized tourism and more passenger access to rail service.

“Traverse City wanted to be connected more to other parts of the state. They also wanted more rails out of Chicago and the southern part of Michigan, so more people could travel easier to the area,” Fischer said.

Chris Kolb, president of the MEC, said different communities have different transportation needs, and in Traverse City, people want tourism and visitors.

“Also, gas prices are very high for residents, and better railroad transportation would help to save money,” Kolb said.

More railroad service to northern regions of the state would also be a successful economic development tool for businesses and the tourism industry, Kolb said.

Fischer said other common themes included cities along east-west routes that want better passenger rail connections between Detroit and other large cities like Grand Rapids.

He said the other major theme is a connection among universities throughout Michigan.

“Many students don’t have cars,” Fischer said.

The forum took place because a federal law required each state to create a rail plan, which involved an investigation of the state rail systems, according to Fischer.

“It was for both passenger and freight railroads and it required a public input process,” Fischer said. “This is where we wanted to contribute and the reason why we created the forums.”

Kolb said another common accommodation that people requested was high-speed rail service between Detroit and Chicago.

“Michigan was rewarded with $161 million in federal grants to buy some of the rails between the two major cities to improve them, and we already built some new train stations,” Kolb said. “But we still need more funding to completely finish the high standards we have for transportation.”

With such improvements, people will be able to travel faster and that makes railroad transportation more appealing, he said.

Fischer added that there is only one high-speed rail in the state now, the Wolverine between Chicago and Pontiac.

Allan Green, a Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) railroad safety inspector in Traverse City, said money is a major issue.

“We are in the very beginning of this transportation change and there have been no concrete proposals for the northern parts of Michigan,” Green said. “The reason for this is funding.”

Green said further meetings in Traverse City are in the planning stages.

“For people in Traverse City, easier access is the number-one priority,” Green said.

Dave Lorenz, managing director of Travel Michigan, said better railroad systems would help tourism and allow easier traveling for business.

Travel Michigan is the official state tourism promotion agency.

Lorenz said Travel Michigan is helping to improve tourism through transportation by distributing promotional material at the Amtrak station in Chicago at Union Station.

“We pass out information packets from Michigan travel bureaus, and last year we sold 7,000 travel magazines,” Lorenz said. “We’re doing this to advertise areas in Michigan that aren’t always visited because of limited access in transportation, and hopefully our information can change that.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Transportation

Michigan’s comeback tied to sustainable communities

By YANAN CHEN
Capital News Service

LANSING—Sustainable communities will be a hot topic in the next 50 years, according to a coalition of environmental groups.

That movement will include activities such as the East Stadium Bridges Improvement Project in Ann Arbor, a new master plan in Grand Traverse County and a job training plan in Southeast Michigan.

The long-term vision outlined by the Michigan Environmental Council includes energy, water, great cities, sustainable communities, transportation, agriculture and natural resources.

Sustainable communities are designed to minimize transportation costs, support local businesses and schools, eliminate waste and produce more local food and renewable energy, said Hugh McDiarmid, the council’s communications director.

Different regions will pursue their own ways to reach those goals, he said.

In Ann Arbor, the replacement of two East Stadium Boulevard bridges is the city’s priority project to build a sustainable community, according to Michael Nearing, the senior project manager.

The bridges, built in 1928, are one-quarter mile from University of Michigan’s football stadium and Crisler Arena and near a high school and two middle schools.

“The bridges are functionally obsolete and structurally deficient,” Nearing, a city engineer said. “They only have one lane in each direction.”

After replacement, the new bridges will have two lanes in each direction, plus bike lanes and wider sidewalks.

Construction of the $23 million project is scheduled to begin in October and be completed by November 2012, Nearing said. The project will help local business and better connect U-M and other schools with residential and commercial areas.

In Grand Traverse County, the sustainable community plan has four parts: a housing information inventory and analysis, a new county master plan, revitalization plans for five corridors and development of an affordable housing trust fund.

John Sych, the director of the county’s Planning and Development Department, said, “People want development to occur in rural places, so this project makes that happened. And this plan will provide affordable housing for people to live and work.

“The biggest challenge we face is to get support from everybody,” Sych said, because the citizens need to be convinced of the program’s value.

The project will be done within two years, he said.

Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw and Wayne counties, which belong to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), will implement a three-year sustainable community project.

Jennifer Evans, a senior planner with SEMCOG, said, “This project has three comprehensive issues, which focus on educating the workforce, stabilizing neighborhoods and providing livable communities, as well as protecting and restoring the environment.”

Components include job training for workers to transition to new jobs and careers, safe streets for all users – pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and motorists, more use of green resources and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, according to Evans.

As for difficulties of facing the project, she said, “Getting local communities to focus on the long view is an issue. What we need to do is bring people together.”

Elsewhere in the state, the Community Sustainability Partnership in Grand Rapids aims to restore environmental integrity, improve economic prosperity and promote social equity, according to the partnership.

In Marquette, the Sustainable Community Ad-Hoc Committee says it focuses on preserving the environment and cutting energy consumption.

In Muskegon, the sustainability of community is embodied in controlling urban sprawl, revitalizing urban centers and strengthening population centers, according to Muskegon Sustainability Coalition.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Economy, Environment

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