Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Stimulus money funds U.P. road safety

An environmental sensor station in the Upper Peninsula. Photo credit: MDOT.

By LAURA FOSMIRE
Capital News Service

LANSING — Upper Peninsula residents are getting help in navigating treacherous wintry roads thanks to federal stimulus money.

The Department of Transportation (MDOT) has installed 14 environmental sensor stations in key locations throughout the U.P.

“As part of our Recovery Act program, we put a broad-based plan in place that covered lots of different areas that the department works in,” said MDOT Director Kirk Steudle. “One of them in particular is intelligent transportation systems.”

Intelligent transportation systems include brightly lit billboards that alert motorists to delays and detours on major highways. They also include sensor stations, which gather information about weather patterns and road conditions.

“The station is basically a tower,” said Randy VanPortfliet, the U.P. regional engineer for MDOT. “They don’t look like much. They’re probably 30 or 40 feet high. Some have solar panels on them because we don’t have power in those locations.”

The stations gather meteorological data such as wind speed, temperature and air pressure, VanPortfliet said.

That information is transmitted to an office in Escanaba, where MDOT officials can deploy snowplows.

Steudle said, “Hopefully we’ll have maintenance vehicles in the right place at the right time, rather than just guessing where to send them and blanket-cover everything.”

VanPortfliet said the best part of the stations is that anyone can use the information, not just MDOT employees.

“Not only do we get to use them, but the public gets to use them too,” he said. “They can make decisions for themselves about whether or not to use snowy roads, or if they have to leave early because it looks so bad.”

The stations gather weather information and have cameras to show live feed of the roads. They can even measure the temperature of the pavement itself to determine the presence of black ice. The camera feed and the information are displayed online so the public can check road conditions.

VanPortfliet said that the stations are proving their worth.

“They’re already showing their effectiveness in helping us be prepared for a storm rather than reacting to a storm,” he said. “That’s the huge part. We can think ahead, rather than waiting until it hits and then figuring out what we have to do.”

The 14 stations are in frequent trouble spots for black ice, blowing snow and lake-effect snow.

“We made sure we had these stations by St. Ignace,” VanPortfliet said. “The road by Lake Michigan was closed four or five times a year, so we have three stations in that area so we can get our trucks ready and see what’s on the pavement.

“There are two of them over by the Munising and Marquette area,” he said. “There’s also one by Republic and one on the Seney Stretch. There’s one by Escanaba, Iron River and one south of Houghton, because that’s usually where lake-effect storms hit first.”

Steudle said intelligent transportation systems can also address problems other than weather, such as the condition of bridges in the U.P.

“Last year we put in new bridge and stress gauges,” he said. “We can tell what’s going on whenever vehicles drive over the bridge. There’s a weigh station in the pavement so we can get car weights, axle weights and speed even before they approach the bridge.”

An additional box on the stations collects that information and sends it wirelessly to MDOT bridge engineers in Lansing, who can keep an eye on bridge safety, Steudle said.

The project began two years ago with an original five stations funded by the federal government. With the additional stimulus money, MDOT was able to build the nine newest stations.

“We had been using federal highway dollars to build the stations before,” Steudle said. “The stimulus money accelerated that. If we didn’t have the stimulus funding, we still would have been building the stations, just at a slower rate.”

The $1.4 million for the project is a small percent of the total $800 million in stimulus money awarded to the state.

VanPortfliet said the cost of each station varies slightly because of the differences in soil conditions. Generally, each station costs around $50,000.

“We want to put more stations in downstate and 18 more in the U.P,” he said. “We’ll be searching for ways to fund that.”

VanPortfliet said that the additional stations are still in the “wish list” process, meaning that their future locations are subject to change.

He said that the stimulus money came with specific instructions on how it can be used.

“Even though we still have potholes and paving issues, money that comes from the federal government has to be spent on this type of work,” VanPortfliet said.

Steudle said that the MDOT plan can be used only on certain roads.

“Our plan just deals with U.S. routes,” he said. “They’re on the federal aid system. For county roads, it’s up to the counties if they want to put their money in this pot or another.”

VanPortfliet said the stations are having a positive impact on U.P. drivers.

“It really helps us by having that real-time information in 14 different locations,” he said. “The public can make decisions. And as their understanding gets more sophisticated, they can see if they might see ice today, or if it may turn to ice or freezing rain. You don’t want to get caught in that.”

Visit http://www.clarus-system.com to see live camera feed and weather information.

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

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Filed under: Budget

Bus services face rising costs

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By JORDAN TRAVIS
Capital News Service

LANSING – The Ludington Mass Transportation Authority’s demand-response services will continue, despite rising costs but with stable state funding.

The operation offers rides on request to residents of Ludington, Scottsville and parts of Amber and Pere Marquette townships. Riders pay a fare, with discounts for senior citizens and people with disabilities.

Services won’t be affected because the authority had money set aside to cover funding shortfalls and other financial crises, Director Richard Collins said.

The operation is “very, very fortunate” to have what is called a rainy day fund, Collins said.
“If it wasn’t for that, we’d be cutting back services,” he said.

However, the savings will be nearly exhausted in two years if the service still has to use it, he said. At that point, Collins said the account balance would be “low enough to where I’m not comfortable using it to balance the budget.”

Dipping into the fund combined with low interest rates means that Collins will no longer be able to use interest earned on the money to help balance the authority’s budget.

The operation served 156,209 passengers between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008. Collins said that was a 4 percent increase over the previous year.

Money for public transportation services like Ludington’s comes from the state comprehensive transportation fund, part of the state transportation budget. While the state has not cut operating cost appropriations from $166 million, costs for public transportation services continue to grow.

Janet Foran, a communications officer for the Department of Transportation, said that despite shrinking revenues, “the state operating fund was held harmless.”

Foran said that a shortfall on matching federal dollars is likely, but the department won’t know until it has “definitive information” on the federal budget.

Federal money is also available, but Clark Harder said the state is at risk of losing it because it can no longer pay the matching portion.

Harder, the executive director of the Michigan Public Transportation Association, said that demand for rural services is up while state revenues are not.

“There were no significant cuts” to public transportation funding, he said, “but there was no growth either.”

Harder said that federal stimulus funds were available, but only to transportation districts that need new buses and other capital projects.

While Collins said that Ludington’s operation doesn’t need new vehicles, Harder said northern Michigan operations have difficulties running their buses for five years, the standard life span of “cut away” buses used by rural transit services.

The nearly $4.5 million portion of the state transportation budget reflects less than half of what Collins said the governor recommended for capital expenses, such as new buses.

Rep. Dan Scripps, D-Leland, said he’s working closely with members of the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee. They are considering recommendations from the Transportation Funding Task Force for finding new money sources, such as changing the state gasoline tax from a per-gallon cost to a percent of the sale price. This would raise money for state transportation needs, including mass transit services.

“We have to find funding solutions that keeps federal money and keeps investment in infrastructure,” he said.

Meanwhile, the authority is looking at ways to cut personnel costs, including health care, such as switching to a plan with a higher deductible.

The transportation authority also gets income from doing contract maintenance for other government agencies in the area, Collins said.

© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Budget, Uncategorized, , ,

Overworked caseworkers report threats, frustrations

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By QUINCY HODGES
Capital News Service

LANSING – Rising numbers of welfare, food stamp and Medicaid clients are causing state workers to struggle with caseloads and recipients to become frustrated.

One result is a growing number of threats, employees of the Department of Human Services (DHS) testified at legislative hearing. They said they are overwhelmed, and some of the people seeking help are taking out their frustrations over delays and lack of attention on workers.

Many of the 83 DHS field offices are swamped with clients, making it highly possible that paperwork goes missing or some money isn’t managed correctly, said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit.
DHS reports an average of about 700 cases per worker in its field offices.

“They are understaffed, dysfunctional, and it’s a endless cycle because the resources aren’t there, Tlaib said.

The department has a zero-tolerance policy on clients who assault employees. Police reports are made when incidents occur. Individual offices have safety guidelines, said state officials.

The problem is simply that the state has to deal with more people applying for assistance, said Terry Salacina, director of field offices.

The state’s “bridges” system was not built for heavy caseloads, so delays can occur.

“Bridges” is the name of the new computer system developed at DHS to determine eligibility and benefit levels for cash, medical, food and childcare assistance.

“Everything is a money issue,” said Rep. David Agema, R-Grandville, vice chair of the Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee.

A DHS worker in Flint told him of an incident in which a man scaled over an office divider with an object in his hand and threatened her. She was afraid for her life, Agema said.

He said workers should be allowed to carry concealed weapons.  But as governmental units, DHS offices are off-limits for employees carrying weapons inside their cars or inside the buildings.

Agema said the “bridges” system is not user-friendly, DHS workers have been furloughed and their phone system is inadequate.

“ There are problems we need to deal with inside the DHS, but the key is to make Michigan a business-friendly state. When we can attract business, we won’t have this problem,” said Agema.

© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Budget, Social Policy, State Agencies, , ,

School clinics stay open despite budget cuts

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By CAITLIN COSTELLO
Capital News Service

LANSING— Thanks to a school clinic, Jasmine Magalski doesn’t have to leave school every Wednesday to get her allergy shots.

The clinic at Alcona Elementary is one of 69 school clinics that lost state aid with the latest budget cuts.

It and the others remain open, but with 10 percent less state aid, said Kyle Gerrant, supervisor of coordinated school health and safety programs at the Department of Education.

Magalski’s mother, Chelsea Travis, is thankful.

“She is able to get treatment without leaving school instead of treatments taking time away from her education, and I think that is really important,” Travis said.

Because clinic services are available, parents don’t have to leave work to pick up sick children or take them to medical appointments, said Paula Welling, a nurse practitioner at the clinic, which is coordinated by the Alcona Health Center.

Christine Baumgardner, executive director of Alcona Health Center, said, “It is so hard to get these services up here anyways, virtually impossible, and we can do this at no cost to the families.”

The clinic, now in its third year, provides on-site primary health care, counseling services, health promotion, disease prevention and education services.

According to Welling, many students also receive asthma treatment and behavior counseling at the clinic.

The school saw a 65 percent decrease in bullying and harassment reports from the 2005-06 to 2006-07 school year due to behavior counseling, Welling said.

The Alcona clinic also runs health promotion activities such as nutrition, fitness and weight management programs.

Welling said the Education Department recognizes that each community is different, so clinics are encouraged to specialize to meet local needs.

Alcona has one of the few elementary school clinics. Most are at middle or high schools, said Welling.

Nearby, Onaway High School opened a clinic this fall.

Guerrant said the state wanted to provide grants for six new clinics this year, but because of budget cuts it was able to only fund three.

Baumgardner said it’s uncertain how Alcona Elementary will cope with the budget cuts. Options include continuing the current program on $25,000 less in state aid or cutting hours.

“I understand the state is trying hard to keep these clinics so we’re going to do our best to accommodate the lower grant dollars,” she said.

Welling said parents have been vocal about the need to continue the program, sending letters to the Legislature and testifying at community meetings.

“It’s working, because we are still here,” she said.

Baumgardner adds, “If the state is looking for programs that give you a phenomenal bang for your buck, school-based clinics are doing it.”

© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Budget, Education, Uncategorized, , , ,

Sheriffs wrestle with budget woes

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BY JORDAN TRAVIS

Capital News Service

LANSING- The State Police are not the only law enforcement officials feeling the pinch of the state budget crisis.

As county governments are forced to cut their own budgets, sheriff’s offices across the state also have to adjust, including those in Mason and Manistee counties.

Terry Jungel, the executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, said he worries that money is getting in the way of law enforcement.

“You can’t let economics drive the train of public safety,” he said.

Jungel said that uniformed services, which he described as all officers except traffic patrols, have suffered the most. He warned that such cuts, combined with state plans to release prisoners early, might lead to an increase in crime.

However, the Mason County Sheriff’s Department might not face any serious cuts in the 2010 budget, according to a county official.

County Administrator Fabian Knizacky said he couldn’t foresee any significant cuts in the sheriff’s office budget.

“The county board has the sheriffs’ office in priority,” he said. “We always try to maintain the sheriff’s office funding.”

Knizacky said he will know for certain after the Legislature works out the state budget.

The county board of commissioners’ efforts don’t go unappreciated, Undersheriff Thomas Trenner said. He applauded the board for handling budget cuts without severely damaging the sheriff’s office.

“The county has been pretty good to us so far,” Trenner said.

The department has been forced to cope with financial difficulties nonetheless. Cuts in funding have forced a cutback on nonessentials such as landscaping. By “trimming the fat,” as he called it, the department has avoided any staff reductions so far.

“I try anything I can before I have to lay staff off,” he said.

Even so, the department faces problems caused by funding at the state level.

Trenner said that his deputies have picked up routes that were once patrolled by State Police because the shrinking state trooper presence has left Mason County deputies handling even more duties.

Manistee County Sheriff Dale Kowalkowski said his office faces the same situation as his deputies cover shifts that troopers were forced to eliminate.

As a result, his department is looking to add another full-time deputy.

Kowalkowski also said that his department likely won’t see any budget cuts in 2010.

Both Kowalkowski and Trenner credit their county governments for the stability of their budgets.

The Manistee County board “runs a pretty tight ship,” Kowalkowski said. Although a strict budget can affect how he does his job, he said it also keeps his office running.

Knizacky said the Mason County board has struck a balance between staffing levels and finance.

“We try to budget pretty conservatively to start with,” he said. “When times are good, we can build a reserve for when times are not as good.”

The situation Kowalkowski and Trenner face is not uncommon, said Thomas Hickson, the legislative affairs director of the Michigan Association of Counties.

Counties across the state have had to pick up services that other governments have dropped, Hickson said. He also said he’s concerned about possible cuts in state revenue sharing with counties.

If that happens, county governments may have to adjust their budgets once more, he said.

Jungel, of the sheriffs’ association, said, “The advice I’ve been giving the sheriffs is, buckle up ‘cause it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.”

Filed under: Budget, Uncategorized

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