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Transportation funding: An exciting future is within reach

Editor’s note: This is the third and final post in a series on transportation funding leading up to the May 5 special election. Read the previous installments here and here.

A lot of what you’ve read about Proposal 1 has probably been about the price Michigan is paying today for our history of inadequately funding our transportation system. Past mistakes—like our flat-rate fuel tax that hasn’t kept pace with inflation—have left us with roads so bad that many local governments are opting to turn them back into gravel, and “structurally deficient” bridges that, in some cases, you can see right through.

It’s all been pretty gloomy. That’s why we wanted to end this series on a hopeful note by offering some glimpses of what Michigan’s transportation future can look like if voters approve Proposal 1. Yes, it will take some time to address the backlog of projects needed to get our infrastructure back in decent shape. But before long, the new funding will support exciting projects that will ultimately add up to the 21st-century transportation system Michigan needs.

Playing catch-up

Roads and bridges are crucial pieces of that system, no doubt. But MEC’s transportation focus is on the environmental, social and economic benefits Michigan will enjoy from improved and expanded passenger rail, public transit and complete streets that address the needs of all users. If Proposal 1 passes, those pillars of our transportation system will see a $116 million annual funding increase.

That sure sounds like a lot, but what does $116 million really get us? Well, to put it in context, the entire startup cost of the planned WALLY commuter rail line from Howell to Ann Arbor is $30 million, plus about $5 million a year to operate the service. The influx of new funding will help get WALLY and similar projects off the ground sooner by providing the matching funds needed to unlock significant federal grants.

Of course, public transportation has a lot of catching up to do in Michigan, since it hasn’t seen a structural funding increase in nearly three decades. Like our roads, public transportation is crumbling in many communities. Some local bus agencies are reducing service and even eliminating routes.  So in addition to launching new projects, Proposal 1 would strengthen the foundation of our public transportation network with basic improvements to existing services. A large portion of the new revenue would support local bus operating expenses, which could mean that transit service in your community extends service hours, increases frequency or provides additional route options.

That’s important, because people all over Michigan depend on public transit to accomplish the basic tasks of daily life. It’s how many rural residents get to the grocery store. Seniors and people with disabilities take buses to the doctor’s office or to visit family members. In some urban districts, public buses are the only way for kids to get to school. Without transit, many of our friends and neighbors couldn’t get to the college classes or job interviews that will bring their families new possibilities and stability. The 260,000 rides Michiganders take on public transit every day are essential gateways to opportunity for economic advancement.

Young people on DC Metro

Research shows good transit is increasingly important for attracting young talent.

On track to prosperity

The benefits of these investments will extend beyond the day-to-day convenience and access to opportunities they provide for millions of Michiganders, though such benefits are significant. Whether or not we build a modern, complete transportation system will be a deciding factor in Michigan’s economic competitiveness. Report after report tells us that Americans across all age groups are looking for more and better options for getting around. Millennials are getting their licenses and owning cars at ever-decreasing rates. Baby boomers are rethinking the auto-centric lifestyle they grew up with and moving away from car-reliant suburbs. Cultural shifts among these two huge demographic groups demand that we think about our transportation system in a more comprehensive way if we want to attract and retain talent and improve quality of life for everyone.

Read more

Curbside collaboration: Help us put recycling within reach for Detroit families

For years, Detroit was the largest city in the country without a curbside recycling program. That dubious distinction ended last year when a curbside pilot program for single-family homes expanded citywide.

Still, the city’s recycling potential remains largely untapped. That’s in part a problem of awareness—the program is fairly new and not everyone knows it’s available—but it’s also a problem of access. Households that want to participate in curbside recycling must first pay $25 for a 64-gallon cart—a significant barrier for many Detroit residents.

And that’s where you come in.

MEC and our partners with the Zero Waste Detroit coalition (ZWD) today launched a project that lets individuals, businesses and other organizations donate $25 or more to help city residents take part in the curbside program.

Please take a moment today to support this effort. It’s simple: Visit the donation website, select an amount and make your contribution by credit card or via PayPal.* MEC and ZWD will work with the city and its waste-hauling contractors to purchase and distribute the carts to households that have indicated a desire to recycle and a need for assistance to pay the fee. Every penny you give will go directly toward the purchase of a recycling cart.

Sandra Turner-Handy recycles.

MEC's Sandra Turner-Handy is among the only residents in her neighborhood participating in Detroit's curbside recycling program.

“Twenty-five dollars might not sound like much, but a lot of folks in the city are struggling to make ends meet, and anything non-essential just doesn’t make it into the monthly budget,” said Sandra Turner-Handy, MEC community engagement director and a lifelong Detroiter in a press release we issued today. “This program allows anyone to play a role in Detroit’s transformation and re-energize residents to take part in their hometown’s rebirth as a thriving, sustainable city.” Read more

MEC adds on-site solar in ongoing sustainability effort

When we acquired MEC’s current home in 2012, we committed as an organization to operating our building in a way that embodies the environmental values at the heart of our mission.

We recently completed the newest project in that effort. Srinergy, a solar project developer from Novi, installed eight solar panels on MEC’s south-facing roof, which will generate an estimated 2,839 kilowatt hours (kWh) per year.  That will offset about 11 percent of the electricity used each year in our 5,800-square-foot property, which houses 20 full-time workers (employees and tenants) along with several interns and fellows.  We’ll save about $400 a year in avoided electric costs.Solar installer does electric work.

MEC is implementing this project with financial support from the Wege Foundation of Grand Rapids.  In 2013, we invested the first installment of a two-year Wege Foundation grant in an intensive insulation project, state-of-the-art heating and cooling equipment with smart thermostats, and highly efficient plumbing fixtures and toilets.  We’ve also implemented procedures to reduce and recycle solid waste and emphasize sustainability in all of our purchasing, from office supplies and cleaning products to coffee and electronics. Together, those measures earned us LEED Platinum Certification, the highest level awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council’s program for existing buildings.

The solar project will further strengthen our building’s environmental performance, as will other upcoming projects. For instance, we’re working on providing ample, convenient bike parking on site. We also have plans to reduce stormwater runoff. We’ll do that by collecting rainwater in a cistern and by replacing some of our asphalt parking spaces with more porous materials that can absorb and filter rainfall, rather than sending stormwater and pollutants straight to the sewer drain. We’ll provide updates on these projects as they develop. Read more

Q&A: Legal scholar proposes world’s longest walking trail around Great Lakes

Here’s a figure to impress the guests at your next cocktail party: The Great Lakes shoreline in the United States and Canada is more than 10,000 miles long—nearly half the circumference of Earth.

Now imagine a walking trail around that shoreline. It would be longer than the Appalachian, Continental Divide and Pacific Crest trails combined. In fact, it would be the longest public walking trail in the world.

Such a footpath is more than a hypothetical idea. Melissa Scanlan, director of the Environmental Law Center at the Vermont Law School, proposed a Great Lakes Coastal Trail in a recent article in the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law. Scanlan argues that the trail would provide a tangible way to restore the public’s coastal history and build local tourist economies.

Intrigued, we checked in with Scanlan by email to learn more about her ambitious vision for the trail.

MEC: Why does someone in Vermont care so much about the Great Lakes? What’s your connection to the lakes?

Melissa Scanlan: I grew up in the Lake Michigan Basin of Wisconsin, founded and directed Midwest Environmental Advocates, where I worked as a lawyer to protect the Great Lakes, and have spent many hours enjoying the lake shores, so I understand what a precious and beautiful resource they are for the region. I also saw through my prior work that we need to focus the public’s attention on the significance of the lakes for the region as a cohesive, binational whole. To address this need, build on existing water and property law, and engage the public, I’ve created a blueprint to establish a Great Lakes Coastal Trail on the shores of the Great Lakes. The trail will link together 10,000 miles of coastline and provide the longest marked walking trail in the world. Unlike other National Scenic Trails where most of the trail required new easements, this one will demarcate an already existing, yet largely forgotten, public trust easement. You don’t have to be born rich to be a beneficiary of this trust fund; the Great Lakes Coastal Trail will allow the public to enjoy their common heritage in the lakeshore, which is held by the government in trust for them. Read more

Q&A: With climate declaration, Brewery Vivant continues striving to “Beer the Change”

As if making delicious beer wasn’t enough to win us over, America’s craft brewers have also been strong leaders in showing that businesses can thrive while giving back to their communities and finding innovative ways to protect the environment.

Case in point: Two dozen craft brewers announced this week they had signed a Brewer’s Climate Declaration, which says the companies will take action to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and will engage with policymakers to support political action to halt climate change. Those breweries already are taking steps to reduce energy use, cut transportation emissions and conserve water, among other sustainability measures.

“It’s good for business, it’s not just good for the environment,” Craft Brew Alliance sustainability manager Julia Person told the Huffington Post. “We’re lowering our operating costs. It’s doing the right thing and having a benefit.”

So far, two Michigan companies—Rockford Brewing Company and Brewery Vivant—have signed the declaration.

In reading up about the climate declaration, we were impressed to learn that Brewery Vivant in 2012 became the first brewery in the country to attain LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. We checked in with co-owner and sustainability manager Kris Spaulding to learn more about how the Grand Rapids brewery is striving to support its community and shrink its environmental impact.

Kris Spaulding

Brewery Vivant's Kris Spaulding.

MEC: Why did Brewery Vivant decide to sign on to the climate declaration? More generally, why have you made sustainability such a priority?

Kris Spaulding: Sustainability is one of the values we founded our business on. We believe that a great business exists because of the support of the local community. Therefore a business should be an active member of the community and should strive to find meaningful ways to engage with it and give back to it. These are values we hold personally, but that we believe all businesses should be thinking along the lines of the triple bottom line.

As for the declaration itself, climate change is going to continue to impact our industry and our world so I think it is best to work towards solutions now rather than waiting for more catastrophic events to finally lead to change happening. I like that the declaration challenges businesses to innovate and work towards solutions rather wait and see what someone else will do. Read more

Transportation funding: Here’s what Proposal 1 does (and why it’s good for Michigan)

Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series on transportation funding leading up to the May 5 special election. Read part one here.

In our first post in this series, we explored the factors—changing driving habits, fuel taxes not keeping pace with inflation, more fuel-efficient vehicles—that have left Michigan and other states hurting for dollars to maintain transportation infrastructure.

In this post we’ll dive into what Proposal 1 would do to begin addressing that shortfall. We’ll warn you right now, folks: This is gonna get pretty wonky. But we think it’s important that voters really understand what’s on the ballot in May, so we’ll do our best to be both thorough and readable.

First, we need to understand how we currently fund Michigan’s transportation system. And as you’ll see, for all the talk by its opponents of how “complicated” Proposal 1 is, it’s not as if our current system is the model of elegance.

How transportation funding works today

The bulk of our transportation dollars comes in roughly equal proportion from two main sources: First, there’s the motor fuel excise tax—19 cents per gallon on gasoline and 15 cents per gallon on diesel—that we all pay at the fuel pump.  Second, there’s the vehicle registration fees we pay at the Secretary of State’s office. The motor fuel excise tax is a flat tax, meaning that it does not react to price inflation—we pay the same amount whether gas costs $1.50 or $3.50.

Current funding structure

About half of our transportation funding comes from the federal government. In recent years our transportation shortfall has been so significant that we’ve had to tap Michigan’s general fund—basically the state’s main checking account—just to meet the match required to be eligible for those federal funds. That money all pours into the Michigan Transportation Fund, the bulk of which pays for roads and bridges. The transportation fund also supports public transit and directs money to the Recreation Improvement Fund, which supports trails, waterways and other outdoor amenities that make Michigan a great place to visit and explore. Read more

MEC supports bill for local control of oil and gas

Imagine a football field. Now imagine that your house is in one end zone, and just past the other end zone is a fence. Behind this fence is a drilling rig operated by a company trying to find oil and gas. At this distance, the rig is allowed to operate at 70 decibels, even overnight, which is the equivalent noise level of a vacuum cleaner. Unless you are in Oakland, Macomb, or Wayne County, lights from the drilling rig can shine through your windows all night, every night.

This was the new reality citizens of Shelby Township woke up to recently when drilling rigs came to town. This mainly suburban, residential community of more than 73,000 people is one of the newest targets for oil and gas exploration in Michigan. Smaller but similarly situated Scio Township, near Ann Arbor, was also a target for exploration.

Legislative efforts last term to address concerns about residential drilling failed in the rush of the lame duck session, but the issue has resurfaced in the House. The Michigan Environmental Council is in support of new legislation introduced last week by Rep. Peter Lucido, a Shelby Township Republican, that would allow for greater local control over oil and gas activity. Read more

Lead Education Day: MEC and partners take to the Capitol to protect Michigan kids

The Michigan Environmental Council joined more than 30 advocates at the State Capitol yesterday to educate lawmakers about the dangers of lead poisoning and the urgent need to maintain the state’s current funding for removing lead hazards from homes.

It was the fourth Lead Education Day organized by the Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Homes. MEC is part of the leadership team for MIALSH, which includes public health agencies, lead-affected families, lead contractors and inspectors, environmental health organizations and the landlord community, among others.

Since its formation in 2010, the MIALSH coalition has been successful in educating legislators about lead hazards and advocating for state investment in lead abatement. Thanks to those efforts, the fiscal year 2014 state budget for the first time included $1.25 million set aside for lead cleanups in homes. MIALSH successfully increased that funding to $1.75 million for the 2015 budget year.

Meeting with Rep. Phelps.

MIALSH members pose after a good meeting with Rep. Phil Phelps (D-Flushing).

“At our first education day, many of the lawmakers we met with were unaware that, even though lead was phased out of paint and gasoline, Michigan’s housing stock still contains a lot of residual lead, and lead poisoning is still a serious problem,” said Tina Reynolds, MEC health policy director and a MIALSH leader. “Term limits mean there’s a lot of turnover in the Legislature and there’s always more education to do, but in general it feels like our messages are sinking in. Once they understand the problem, legislators find lead poisoning unacceptable, and they’re supportive of our coalition’s efforts.”

Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget proposal for the 2016 fiscal year maintains the $1.75 million for lead programs, but protecting that funding from cuts as the budget moves through legislative committees will require that lawmakers understand the impact of lead poisoning in their districts. Read more

MEC boosts capacity at Capitol

MEC is proud to announce that we’ve hired Sean Hammond to strengthen our team of policy experts at the state Capitol.

Sean Hammond (center) introduced at MEC's Legislative Breakfast

As Deputy Policy Director, Hammond will help MEC build and maintain relationships with lawmakers, stay abreast of new bills and legislative committee activities, and keep our member groups informed about developments at the Capitol. Since joining our staff in January, he has met with dozens of state lawmakers to introduce himself and update them on MEC’s policy priorities. He’s also built new tools that will help our staff members work together to respond quickly and effectively to environmental legislation.

A native of Potterville, Mich., Hammond comes to MEC with experience working in the Legislature and state agencies. Most recently, he held a legal externship with Michigan’s Senate Majority Policy Office, where he provided Republican lawmakers with policy analysis and legal memos on proposed legislation.

Hammond also has interned with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the office of Attorney General Bill Schuette and with state Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), who was then serving in the House.

“Sean adds an important voice and viewpoint to the MEC team,” said Chris Kolb, MEC president. “Having him on board puts us in a great position to chalk up some important wins on key environmental issues affecting Michigan. His skills and experience will be particularly helpful in this new legislative term, when water protection, clean energy and public land management will be front-and-center topics at the Capitol.”

Hammond is a 2014 graduate of the Michigan State University College of Law. He graduated with honors from Saginaw Valley State University in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and minors in political science and chemistry.

“I really admire MEC’s solutions-oriented approach to public policy and the group’s vision for the kind of state Michigan can be,” Hammond said. “It’s exciting to be part of such a well-respected team, and I look forward to finding common ground with policymakers to protect public health and preserve the natural resources that make our state so special.”

Hammond lives in East Lansing and spends his off-work hours preparing for two important events: He’s studying for the state bar exam, and is planning an October wedding to fiancée Jess Averill, who is legislative director for Sen. Jones.

Welcome aboard, Sean!

Transportation funding: How’d we get here?

The package of transportation-funding bills Gov. Snyder signed  earlier this month sets the stage for a ballot initiative with high stakes for drivers, transit riders and Michigan’s economy.

Voters in May will have their say on a proposed 1 percent increase in the state sales tax. Along with $300 million per year in new school funding, the proposal would raise about $1.2 billion a year for roads and at least $107 million annually for the Comprehensive Transportation Fund, which supports maintenance and upgrades to public transit and passenger rail. If approved, it would be the state’s first structural increase in funding for public transportation since 1987.

Like many Michiganders, we would have preferred a full solution from the Legislature, rather than facing the added cost, delay and uncertainty a ballot initiative adds to the process. But a ballot drive is what we’ve got, and MEC fully supports its passage.

In the run-up to the May vote, we’ll use this blog to take a close look at Michigan’s transportation system and to make our case that supporting that system in its entirety—not just roads and bridges—is essential to our state’s quality of life and economic competitiveness.

In this first installment of an occasional series, we’ll explore how Michigan arrived at such a desperate need for new transportation funding, and show we’re far from alone in that need.

How we got here

It only takes a few minutes behind the wheel on most Michigan roads to see how badly we need new transportation revenue. (Drive down Pine St. in Lansing from MEC’s offices to I-496. We dare you.)

What’s going on here? Why have the roads gotten so bad? Read more