Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Transportation services for seniors under financial pressure

By YANAN CHEN
Capital News Service

LANSING—For many seniors who cannot drive anymore, communities provide varied transportation services, but state budget cuts may mean fewer seniors getting out and avoid isolation.

Counties have their own ways of providing transportation.

For example, the Mecosta County Commission on Aging connects with a bus system and volunteer groups to take seniors to malls, supermarkets and appointments.

Commission director Claudia Lenon said buses go to senior buildings to pick up them.

Also, the county gives a grant to help pay for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP).

“People who live in rural areas and cannot take a bus sometimes use that source, but that is a very limited transportation source,” Lenon said.

The county also offers rides to wheelchair users for medical appointments and pays drivers for that service.

“If the seniors plan a social trip, such as shopping, they are expected to donate some money because the county doesn’t have a grant to offset the cost,” Lenon said. “But for the trip used for medical purposes, there’s no fee.”

As for the impact that the state’s budget cut will bring to seniors’ service programs, Lenon said she hasn’t thought much about it because the cuts will not take effect immediately. But she has concerns that the cuts may reduce services in the future.

In Grand Traverse County, a place that attracts many retirees, it’s estimated that around one-third residents will be senior citizens by 2020.

Brandy Hansen, a clerk at the county’s Commission on Aging, said there are two transportation programs. In one, volunteers provide cars and drive seniors. In the other, contracts are made with taxi companies, home health care companies and other transportation companies, Hansen said.

“The seniors can pay only $4 to have coupons which are valued as high as $40,” Hansen said. “They can use them when taking taxis.”

Lana Patenaude, an office specialist for the commission, said senior services in the county won’t be affected by the propsed budget cuts, because all the money come from local tax.

Marquette County provides senior transportation services for people who are older than 55, said Mary Jo Greenlund, a RSVP program assistant in the county.

Greenlund said seniors are referred by a local agency. Volunteers go to seniors’ homes to pick up them, drive them to the doctor’s office and then drive them home.

“We get local donations from the county and the seniors. The money goes to pay the gas for volunteers,” Greenlund said.

Last year, the county fulfilled 664 of 694 requests for rides. Cancellations and volunteers’ unavailablility account for the unmet requests, she said.

Greenlund said since most of county is rural, seniors need those kinds of services. The services focus on medical transportation now, but there’s tremendous need for grocery shopping trips.

As for the impact of budget cuts, the county recently held a meeting for seniors and legislative liaisons to express their concerns. Participants said they worried that reduced funding and higher costs may lead to the reduction of services.

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

Filed under: Transportation

Texting while driving law proves difficult to enforce

By DAN SMALLWOOD

Capital News Service

LANSING – Although Michigan made texting while driving a primary offense last summer, enforcement remains a difficult task for police.

Thomas Hendrickson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police based in Okemos, said he suspects that tickets are rarely issued simply because it’s difficult to tell whether a driver is actively texting.

Dialing a phone number or using other phone functions isn’t illegal, he said, and dialing wouldn’t qualify as a reasonable suspicion for police to make a traffic stop.

But Nancy Cain, public relations director for AAA Michigan in Dearborn, said that she hoped drivers would refrain from dialing that number, whether or not it is illegal.

“We were very pleased when Michigan passed the law,” she said. “We think it’s very important that people don’t text and drive. People can’t do multiple things at once.”

Cain said that AAA doesn’t want drivers doing anything other than driving while behind the wheel, whether or not those activities are legal.

“Even on a hands-free cell phone, your mind is on the conversation rather than the road,” she said.

Because the difference between legal and illegal activity with a cell phone is difficult to identify at a moment’s glance, Hendrickson said that could impede enforcement of the law.

“To actually discern whether or not a driver was texting is difficult and would usually be done after the fact,” Hendrickson said.

He said while driving erratically can attract an officer’s attention, the usual citations would be for moving violations and unsafe driving, unless it was obvious that the driver had been texting.

Since the anti-texting law went into effect on July 1, 476 tickets have been issued under it, according to the Judicial Data Warehouse.

Violators of the law face a $100 fine for the first offense and $200 for subsequent violations.

These enforcement numbers, Cain said, represented a good start that she compared to the introduction of seat belt requirements.

“It takes a little time for people to get used to it,” she said. AAA, she said, has worked to communicate the existence of the law to its members and the general public.

Cain said she believes adherence to the law will improve over time.

In Troy, a more broad-based distracted driving ordinance makes any use of a cell phone other than with a wireless headset illegal, as well as any activity that noticeably impedes a driver.

Robert Redmond, a lieutenant with the Troy Police Department, said enforcement of just the texting provision of the law is difficult because many times the cell phone is on the driver’s lap, out of sight for most officers.

Troy’s law makes it so a driver is allowed most activities within reason, other than using a cell phone, so long as they’re able to capably drive while performing it.

Redmond said it’s hard to quantify how often accidents are linked to reckless behavior, simply because drivers won’t always own up to their mistake, content for more vague explanations for an accident.

“We all know what happens, but getting them to admit it is another matter,” he said. “We are asking more, though.”

Redmond said sometimes stupidity on the road is impossible to deny. He cited cases where a man was traveling more than 90 miles per hour on the freeway while filling a marijuana bong, or a woman who was swerving between lanes while attempting to dip and eat chicken nuggets.

These cases are just some examples of how distracted driving leads to excessively dangerous behavior, Redmond said.

But Hendrickson said that the only way to make it easier to catch violations of the anti-texting law would be if phones were significantly larger.

In addition, violations aren’t near the top of the priority list for police. Drunken drivers and other moving violation are much more prominent concerns, he said.

“Certainly texting is a distraction, but that distraction has to manifest itself in some other way,” Hendrickson said. “The mere fact that they’re texting won’t bring them to the attention of an officer.”

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

Filed under: Transportation

Push renewed to ease truck weight limits

By KATHLEEN LOFTUS
Capital News Service

LANSING – For the past eight years, legislators have debated whether to exempt heating fuel trucks from road weight limitations.

Will the debate finally end?

Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, wants to add heating fuel to the list of exemptions from seasonal weight restrictions.

Currently, the so-called “frost law” excuses trucks carrying “agricultural commodities, and, under certain circumstances, public utility vehicles on a highways, roads or streets” during March, April and May.

Seasonal weight restrictions require vehicles to reduce their maximum load by 25 percent on concrete pavement and 35 percent on all other roads.

No vehicle, regardless of the circumstances, can weigh more than 80,000 pounds. Different weight restrictions apply to all vehicles depending on axle size and number of axles.

Wayne Kohley, president of Excel Propane Co. in Fruitport, supports Casperson’s proposal and said people need to get heating fuel in a timely matter.

By reducing the allowable load, delivery trucks must make three to five additional trips, causing delays and wasting fuel.

“It’s an added burden to Michigan companies,” he said.

“Propane is an essential commodity to heat homes in the winter,” Kohley said.

Kohley also said the seasonal weight limits don’t keep the roads in better condition because heavy trucks must make extra trips with smaller loads.

Ed Noyola, deputy director of the County Road Association of Michigan, and Jon Rice, managing director of the Kent County Road Commission, oppose the heating fuel exemption.

At a Senate Transportation Committee hearing, Noyola said consumers can call sooner and wait a little longer for heating fuel, so heavier trucks shouldn’t be allowed on local roads that are already crumbling.

Current law allows exceptions for emergencies, so Casperson’s proposal is unnecessary, Noyola said.

Rice said 70 percent of paved roads in Kent County were in good or fair condition in 2005, but that figure has dropped to 50 percent because of lack of funding and deterioration.

He said the two most serious factors are weather and excess weight.

Kent County has the state’s second-largest transportation system with 2,000 miles.  Of them, only 300 miles are all-season roads and 400 miles are gravel.

Putting too much weight on roads during March through May when frost is approximately 12 inches below the surface causes damage, Rice said.

Casperson said he realizes moisture from frost creates problem and doesn’t provide a solid road base.

“Frost creates a carpet effect, like a sponge. The roads can be damaged until frost is out of the ground, but speed also plays a role,” Casperson said.

Casperson said not all road commissions have problems with the frost law.  For example, counties like Dickinson in the Upper Peninsula have cooperated with weight restrictions.

He said small things like changing which highway entrance or exit a truck uses can help immensely.

The co-sponsors are Sens. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake Township, Mike Nofs, R-Jackson and Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township

Casperson said he is considering final changes in the bill before a committee vote.

Casperson said he believes there’s a better chance of passage this year than in the past.

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

Filed under: Transportation

Road-crunching trumps repaving in more counties

By KATHLEEN LOFTUS
Capital News Service

LANSING — Half of Michigan’s 83 counties are expected to turn paved roads to gravel this year due to insufficient funding — three times the number from 2007.

Before 2007, only 12 counties had converted paved roads into gravel, according to the County Road Association of Michigan (CRAM).

In 2009, 38 moved to gravel roads because of costs.

Today, CRAM estimates that have chosen gravel instead of repaving to keep roads safe and cost-efficient.

CRAM public relations specialist Monica Ware said counties prefer not to return roads to gravel, but without enough funding, unsafe crumbling roads must be reconstructed.

“We’re left with no choice but to unfortunately go back to gravel,” she said.

There are no comprehensive figures on the number of county roads graveled in 2010, but the number last year is estimated at nearly 200, according to CRAM.

In an a CRAM poll, 27 counties reported anticipating or having the possibility of pulverizing some roads, including Alcona, Ingham, Marquette, Montcalm and Tuscola.

Lapeer County did not return any roads to gravel last year and isn’t planning to do so soon, said Ryan Doyle, assistant highway engineer.

Of 1,200 county miles of roads, 811 are gravel.

“It’s always an option as funding goes down, but we haven’t gotten to that point,” Doyle said.

Marquette County didn’t change any roads to gravel in 2010 either, according to Jim Iwanicki, engineer manager at the road commission.

A few years ago, some roads returned to gravel after the road commission asked townships for input on the best way to use their money, Iwanicki said.

The consensus was gravel. To repave a road that lasts only seven or eight years until deterioration and required repaving is too costly, he said.

The county will analyze roads and budgets over the next year to see if more roads will be turned to gravel.

Most counties returning roads to gravel predicted one to seven miles of change in 2010, but Calhoun County anticipated graveling 25 to 40 miles of local roads.

According to CRAM, 93 percent of counties reduced road maintenance in the last three years, with an 82 percent reduction on gravel road maintenance.

Ware said the roads are still being maintained and plowed. However, on weekend and during overtime shifts, they may not be plowed until there is significant snow accumulation.

She also said it’s hard to put a price tag on how much cheaper it is to have gravel roads but the initial capital cost saves up to $200,000 to $250,000 per mile.

“It’s not a one-time expenditure. There is longer-term gravel road maintenance for keeping the roads safe. If there isn’t funding for paving a road, we need a safe gravel road.”

Revenues to county road commissions have gone down to a decade-low while expenses have increased. For example, salt has risen 200 percent, Ware said.

“No one thinks this is an ideal situation. If there were enough funding, roads would be repaved.”

“If just revenue decreased, the efficiencies implemented would be enough, but with skyrocketing costs we’ve ended up with the challenges we’re facing,” she said.

People aren’t happy about black dust produced by gravel roads, but testing confirmed the dust creates no health problems, she said.

But Gilbert Baladi, a Michigan State University civil and environmental engineering professor, said breaking up pavement and switching to gravel increases motorists’ costs. Vehicle operating costs go up, average speeds are slower causing delays and it costs the drivers more to travel on gravel than pavement.

He said more maintenance is required for the engine, loose gravel can cause more problems in the exhaust system and longer traveling time means more gas expenses.

Baladi said the quality of the roads isn’t good.

“There are so many potholes on the road, you almost have to navigate back and forth, switching lanes to avoid them,” said Baladi, an expert on pavement design and maintenance.

Baladi said dust is needed to hold gravel roads together. Every car that drives on a gravel road pushes the gravel to the sides and displaces it. Brine is put on roads to hold down dust and stabilize them.

Every so often, gravel is pushed back on the road and every year or two, fresh gravel is added.

Baladi said, “I don’t think adding gravel will save much money but it’s the only possible solution right now.”

Ben Bodkin, Michigan Association of Counties director of legislative affairs, said the state doesn’t pay counties as much as it should for essential services.

“We’re seeing slower services. Roads aren’t plowed well and they’re turning paved roads into gravel. This is not the progress I want to see,” Bodkin said.

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

Filed under: Transportation

MDOT aims to cut construction inconveniences

By SARA QAMAR
Capital News Service

LANSING – The upcoming full construction and peak tourism season – widely known as orange cone season — has prompted the Department of Transportation (MDOT) to lessen the adverse impacts of road projects on travelers and commuters.

“Tourism is a huge industry in the state, and if possible we would like to keep the experience easier and more enjoyable for those coming into the state,” MDOT communications representative Carie Arend said.

Upcoming projects include a lane expansion project on I-94 near Kalamazoo and three bridge replacements on US-12 between Union in Cass County and Motville in St. Joseph County.

The I-94 project in Portage is in its final year and is widening the interstate to six lanes on both sides.

This year the westbound lanes are being rebuilt, and that will have the biggest impact on motorists, said Southwest Region MDOT communications representative Nick Schirripa.

The majority of I-94 traffic carries commuters between Chicago and Canada each day, Schirripa said.

One strategy that lessens inconvenience and delays is working on only one direction of the highway at a time. In the meantime, both westbound and eastbound traffic will be able to flow on the eastbound side, Schirripa said.

Reconstruction of bridges on US-12, however, will cause a detour of approximately three times longer than the six-mile stretch of work.

Because bridges cannot remain open during repairs, detours are the best option, especially on rural routes, he said.

“Locals will find their way around the work on their own. The detour is more for commercial traffic,” he said.

Commercial vehicles, mostly trucks, make up 350 of the 5,000 motorists who travel between Union and Motville on US-12 every day.

The roadwork may not deter tourists from coming into the state initially, but may affect whether they visit a second time or recommend Michigan as a desirable destination to family and friends, Michigan State University tourism expert Sarah Nicholls said.

“Tourists tend to remember the very best things about their trip, and they also tend to remember the worst experiences. So if someone happens to be on a route that’s single-lane for miles and miles, that’s going to negatively impact their experience,” she said.

Nicholls would like construction work to occur during off-season for travelers, but understands weather constraints make that impossible.

“It’s unfortunate the prime work season corresponds with peak tourism season,” she said.

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

 

Filed under: Transportation

Turbulent skies for some small airports

By BRANDON GRENIER

Capital News Service

LANSING — Abrams Municipal Airport in Grand Ledge is a small, publicly owned airport that handles mostly personal and charter traffic.

Like many of its counterparts across Michigan and nationally, Abrams has watched small-scale aviation business – and thus revenue – shrink in the continuing aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Although Abrams is making its lowest profits in years, netting about $5,000 last year, its management predicts business will bounce back.

Abrams is one of about 240 public use airports and heliports in the state, according to the Department of Transportation (MDOT).

They range from 17 with commercial airline service – such as Detroit Metropolitan Airport and ones in Flint, Grand Rapids, Marquette, Pellston, Alpena, Traverse City and Lansing – to small privately owned and municipal ones, like Abrams. Almost 32.4 million passengers got on or off at those with commercial service last year, according to MDOT.

The city of Grand Ledge owns Abrams, which has revenue from farming the surrounding land, payments from the National Guard that operates there, fuel sales and hangar rentals.

According to its operations budget, Abrams collects $19,000 annually from the National Guard and $24,000 from hangar rentals. It receives $150,000 annually from the federal government for infrastructure, said City Administrator Jon Bayless, who also manages the airport

Bayless said maintenance costs eat up most of the operational income. Most of its budget goes to mowing the grass and plowing snow from the runways.

Dave Powers, director of operations at GrandAir Aviation Inc., said, “If this airport had to exist on generating its own revenue, or any airport for that matter, it wouldn’t work.”

GrandAir, a charter service, is the airport’s fixed base operator and offers flight training.

Powers said Abrams is better than most other general aviation airports at saving money, although it still needs federal funds for paving runways and building improvements.

In February, MDOT named Branch County Memorial Airport in Coldwater as Michigan’s Airport of the Year. The department cited it for “efficient use of limited available funding, and for maintaining strong community support for the general aviation airport, which has about 12,000 takeoffs and landings annually.”

Meanwhile, belts could tighten significantly for rural and small-city commercial airports as Congress considers Republican proposals to cut federal subsidies that support service at about 150 cities nationally, including six in Michigan.

For example, the federal Essential Air Service program gave Muskegon County Airport the smallest subsidy in Michigan last year, $660,770, and Manistee County Blacker Airport the largest, $1.8 million, U.S. Department of Transportation figures show. The state’s other four that may be affected are in the Upper Peninsula: Escanaba, Hancock/Houghton, Ironwood and Iron Mountain/Kingsford.

MDOT Director Kirk Steudle commended small general-aviation airports for their ability to maintain budgets, but said small airports must still make sacrifices, even with excellent management.

Given the state’s economic problems, they can’t count on MDOT to rescue them from financial problems, Steudle said. “We internally have stopped a whole bunch of services we used to provide, primarily because we don’t have the money, and we don’t have the people.”

Bayless said the weak economy means many people can’t afford to fly small planes like they used to. Just a few years ago, it was common for private plane owners, including working-class people who owned property in Northern Michigan, to fly back and forth.

“We’re in a recession right now,” said Bayless. “And general aviation has slowed down a lot over the last four years.”

There are about 7,000 planes registered in the state, according to MDOT.

While money is a key factor in that slow-down, security also deters many people from flying their own planes.

“This whole thing got stung with 9/11, and it never really did come back,” Bayless said. “You go back in the ‘70s and ‘80s and there was a whole lot more going on then than there is now. It was coming back in the 1990s, then you had 9/11 – and it really did in aviation.”

GrandAir’s Powers said that while the privately owned component of aviation has been hurt, there have been advantages on the corporate side.

For example, with commercial airline security tighter than ever, some corporate executives find small planes a better way to travel.

“When they go to the airport it’s a three-to-four-hour process to get on an airliner. If they went on a corporate jet or a charter airplane, they can get there, have the meeting and be back in their office in two hours,” Powers said.

Powers said that as security gets more onerous in commercial airports and the economy improves, more people will likely turn to charter planes.

“What you have is a typical story – the rich are getting richer and the middle ground is going away. The gap is spreading, but there is still business,” he said.

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

 

Filed under: Transportation

Rising gas prices drive interrest in vanpooling

By KATHLEEN LOFTUS

Capital News Service

LANSING – With more than 335 state-sponsored vanpools and escalating gas prices, the state Transportation Department (MDOT) predicts that van commuting will gain popularity.

VPSI Inc. in Troy has had a contract with MDOT since 1981 to coordinate commuter vans in a program intended to help the environment, reduce wear and tear on vehicles and save commuters money.

VPSI runs more than 6,000 vans nationwide. According to VPSI, one 15-passenger van eliminates 136 tons of carbon dioxide emissions daily.

Michelle Romano Rockwood, MichiVan division manager, said to qualify for a van, at least five people must pool to a common area.

The group then sets a meeting point, such as a supermarket parking lot, loads up in the morning and drives to work, she said.

Romano Rockwell said the newest MichiVan routes are between Washington Township and Flint, between Clarkston and Detroit, between Clinton Township and Detroit and between Grand Rapids and Battle Creek.

She said some of the first routes linked Ann Arbor with Detroit, Southfield with Lansing, Chesterfield Township and Flint with Warren, Jackson with Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids with Lansing.

Most vanpools are set up by individuals, but the company also offers lease agreements, she said. For example, there are 80 vans in the University of Michigan vanpool.

Alice Cheesman, admissions coordinator of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Michigan, promotes vanpools to employees.

She is the primary driver for five fellow employees commuting between Tecumseh and Ann Arbor.

“My responsibilities include vacuuming the van, making sure tires are at the right level, taking it in for oil change and documenting information for MichiVan and U of M.”

MichiVan wants to track how many riders are using its vans. The university reports fuel cost, how many days each rider commuted per month and how many drove their own car.

Because of gas price increases, MichiVan riders have multiplied.

MDOT Director Kirk Steudle said getting the first 100 vanpools took a long time, getting the next 100 was a lot quicker and the last 100 even faster.

Doug Carmichael, an analyst from the Department of Community Health, said, “I started my own pool in November 2008 because there were none in existence that met my 10-hour, four-day schedule at the time. Even in my 36-mpg car, I was still using four gallons of gas each day driving myself.”

“We park the van in Novi and leave at 5:50 a.m. to arrive in Lansing, dropping everyone off by 7. Our riders come from Livonia, Sterling Heights, Novi, Bloomfield Hills, Farmington Hills, Brighton and Highland.

“We stop in Brighton to pick up additional riders. We leave Lansing at 5:30, and generally get back around 6:30 p.m.,” he said.

Their pool uses about eight gallons of gas per day, but Carmichael said with gas costing $3.33, would cost $13 a day to drive to work alone, even in his economical car.

He said he likes the experience the vanpool provides for new friendships and expanding networks among participants.

Cheesman said gas used to cost $10 a day for her group’s commutes. Now the cost is more like $11 a day for their route.

Cheesman said U of M supplements a large amount of the cost, making it less expensive for the poolers.

In vanpools generally, one primary driver takes the vehicle home each day and up to five alternative drivers cover in case of sickness or vacation.

The primary driver rides free but is responsible for maintaining the vehicle.

VPSI’s Romano Rockwood said, “All maintenance, washes, oil changes and filing MDOT required reports is billed to MichiVan. Poolers hand car companies a coupon for maintenance so no passengers or drivers pay out-of-pocket.”

The other passengers pay an annual rate for the service. The monthly cost includes maintenance and insurance, but riders pay for fuel, sales tax and necessary parking, she said.

The commutes range from one to 90 miles, Romano Rockwood said.

Cheesman said a main reason U of M helps its poolers is to save parking spaces on campus. MichiVans park free and leave free as many as 480 parking spots if all commuters pool daily.

“More and more vans should be made available because of the big savings. It saves the environment — we’re not using as much fuel — saving gas and lowering personal auto insurance, and we’re leaving one less footprint on the environment,” she said.

“Every rider I know would say it’s great. I’m just sorry I didn’t do this a long time ago. I wish I would have started 30 years ago instead of three.”

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

 

Filed under: Transportation

Smarter cars, smarter roads mean safer driving

By DAN SMALLWOOD
Capital News Service

LANSING – Roads that communicate with cars and cars that more effectively communicate with their drivers and other vehicles may be well on their way to reality.

For now, it’s a steadily progressing vision of the future held by Department of Transportation (MDOT) Director Kirk Steudle.

That vision is helped by MDOT’s Connected Vehicles initiative, which is aimed at testing, developing and implementing so-called IntelliDrive systems to make driving safer.

Michigan is one of three states at the forefront of a broader national initiative to make smarter cars and roads, Steudle said, in part because of testing done across the state. California and Virginia also participate.

In the future, he said, “we will have vehicles smart enough to know where they are on the road and refuse to crash” because of the technologies being developed. Cars are already being built with some of those advancements integrated.

Stuedle said cars being tested are smart enough to know optimal speeds to avoid red lights and to refuse to run through those signals.

That’s accomplished with wireless technologies, including specialized Wi-Fi, broadcasting information to receptors in vehicles. That information may be knowing when a light is ready to change and the posted speed limit, which can then be more easily conveyed to the driver. Cars can also communicate to each other to help avoid collisions.

Other applications include adjusting signal timing to help manage traffic, adjusting traffic signals for emergency vehicles’ safe passage and easing traffic jams. It can also help drivers make left turns more safely.

Auto manufacturers are on board with the initiative.

Carmakers across the world are working together in a Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership. Ford, GM, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mercedes, Audi and Volkswagen are involved and were joined by Hyundai Kia last year.

The systems under development require cooperative technology, according to Mike Shulman, a technical leader for Ford Research and Advanced Engineering’s Active Safety Research division in Dearborn. The companies are working to create an industry standard so vehicles can communicate with each other regardless of brand.

Wireless communications are the next step forward in safety developments, Shulman said.

“We’re giving the vehicle more information about the world around it,” he said. That information can then be used to warn drivers and help implement avoidance measures. One potential use could integrate knowledge of accidents or traffic jams with a car or smart phone’s GPS to help avoid delays.

Manufacturers are also exploring smart intersections, both internally and with government partners, Shulman said.

One of the major testing operations is in Oakland County, whose road commission is working with MDOT in Farmington Hills on operating a test bed on Telegraph Road between 8 Mile and 13 Mile. That was recently upgraded and expanded in a process that ended earlier this year.

Danielle Denau, a signal systems engineer for the Oakland County Road Commission, said the Telegraph Road corridor is unique among test beds because of its continuous length.

“Telegraph is a really heavily traveled corridor,” she said, which makes its data more reliable to testers.

Such test facilities not only help develop technologies but keep automakers’ testing in Michigan, Steudle said.

One of MDOT’s primary objectives is to ensure that research – and the jobs that come with it – stay in the state as much as possible. Steudle estimated the potential jobs from continued research and implementation at 24,000.

He said that while testing continues, it’s time to start implementing such systems at critical points around the state. MDOT is applying for federal grants to do that and is lobbying the federal government to be the site of an upcoming model development.

The explosion in technology, especially mobile and wireless technology in the past few years, is contributing to making smarter cars a reality, Steudle said.

And Shulman said mobile technology and aftermarket components will make it easier to connect older vehicles to new systems.

While it’s hard to accurately predict where technology is headed, Steudle said he doubts automated driving will happen anytime soon.

“We love to drive cars,” he said, “but there are times where the cars get away from the driver – an accident.” And while IntelliDrive can make accidents less likely, he said society isn’t prepared to give up driving completely, at least not in the foreseeable future.

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

 

Filed under: Transportation

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

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