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A clean power plan for Michigan

Many of us working on energy and climate policy looked forward to June 2 like it was Christmas morning. That was the date set for the EPA to announce a new draft rule to cut carbon pollution from power plants, building on the Clean Power Plan President Obama drafted last summer.

Now that we’ve had a couple of weeks to dig into the rule, does it match the hype leading up to it? On one hand, yes: It is undoubtedly the most significant action the U.S. government has taken to address climate change, and it should yield economic benefits and job creation.

On the other hand, the reality of the rule’s impact—at least in Michigan—does not match the sky-is-falling rhetoric opponents to carbon regulation have used to describe it. The rule reaffirms the action Michigan took in 2008 by passing Public Act 295, and meshes well with the clean-energy discussion started by Governor Snyder in 2013.

Still, Michigan will not achieve the required carbon reductions with a business-as-usual approach. We will need to be more aggressive in our transition to renewable energy and in reducing energy waste. Fortunately, MEC is already taking part in discussions in Lansing to outline the next steps for Michigan’s clean energy programs. Read more

Good budget news overshadowed by road funding dead end

Michigan lawmakers are in for a bumpy ride home.

They are in the unenviable position—but one they put themselves in—of explaining to constituents why they couldn’t work out a solution to a maddening problem we all face every day and that the majority of Michiganders say is the most urgent issue facing the state.

Their inability to pass a transportation funding package means our roads will only get worse, doing more damage to our vehicles, driving away businesses that might otherwise invest in Michigan and likely even costing more Michiganders their lives.

It also means the rest of Michigan’s transportation system will lose out. As we wrote here recently, public transit, passenger and freight rail, cargo shipping infrastructure and public boating facilities all will suffer because the Legislature couldn’t get the job done before breaking for summer recess.

But! It’s Friday and the forecast looks gorgeous. Summer in Michigan is too brief and too lovely to spend much time grumbling. Let’s keep on the sunny side.

In the Legislature’s mad dash toward summer break, they passed a budget that actually will do great things for Michigan’s people and environment. Here are a few examples to cheer you up for the weekend. Read more

Time is right—but running out—for transportation funding deal

Michigan’s legislature has one week left before the summer recess. With the Detroit aid package finalized and a budget agreement shaping up, lawmakers face just one major hurdle before they head home to reconnect with their constituents.

Doubt is growing in Lansing about whether legislators can agree on a transportation funding package before the break. While they could take the issue back up in the fall, we believe the leadership in the Capitol must hammer out a deal immediately.

Here are a few reasons they need to get it done now: Read more

To praise and protect: holiday thoughts on Michigan’s public lands

Michigan’s woodlands and waters are warming up, breaking into bloom, and will welcome thousands into their spring-into-summer embrace this beautiful holiday weekend. For me, our annual outdoor awakening brings to mind two simple observations about Michigan’s public lands.

1. They are awesome.

Case in point: I have the privilege of working with the Pigeon River Country Advisory Council to advise the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on management of the largest block of contiguous public land in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. It’s a job I take seriously, and I’ve taken some time learning and hoping to understand the place.

I spent Wednesday afternoon poking around the 105,000 acres on foot and by four-wheel drive, and was witness to: three elk crashing away into shadowy trees; a clear small stream bubbling as wind whispered high in tall pines above; and an old log shelter perched atop a broad river valley with blue skies stretching away without end. Trillium in bloom, birds chirping spring through the aspen groves, mushroom hunters prowling the miles of two-tracks and logging roads.

This trip, like too many in my full-time, new-dad lifestyle, was squeezed into the scant few hours before an evening meeting. The PRC is huge, its ecological communities and landscapes ranging from dark cedar swamps to warm, sandy ridges baking in sunlight. In half a dozen such trips over the last year or so—a few camp nights, a handful of slow drives, some long talks and longer hikes, a few books and a winter trail run—I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of the Pigeon River Country. Such places are rich, deep and challenging, and reward nothing so much as time and careful attention. Read more

Long track record, millage victory make Ford solid choice as RTA chief

MEC applauded the unanimous vote Wednesday by the board of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan to hire longtime transportation administrator Michael Ford as its new CEO.

Ford previously held leadership positions with transit authorities in Stockton, Calif., Portland and Seattle. All told, he has 35 years of experience with public and private transit institutions, from working as a bus station custodian in college to serving a management role with Greyhound.

Perhaps the deciding factor in the nine-member board’s selection of Ford was his success in his current role at the helm of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. Ford is still employed by AAATA and has not yet confirmed that he will accept the RTA offer.

Ford is fresh off a major win at AAATA, where he helped to gain 71% voter approval this month for a new millage that will expand transit service by 44% in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. Rigorous planning, communications and public engagement were major factors in that decisive victory.

With its own millage campaign set to culminate in November 2016, the RTA stands to benefit from Ford’s experience in Ann Arbor, said MEC President Chris Kolb.

“Michael Ford has proven he has the right set of skills to demonstrate to community members that better public transportation creates a stronger region with more opportunities for residents,” Kolb said. “I’m confident his strong leadership will help the RTA fulfill its potential as a transformative force for Metro Detroit.”

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MEC releases report exploring mileage fee to fund transportation system

MEC today released a report that explores the possibility of funding Michigan’s transportation system by charging motorists based on the distance they drive.

One key advantage of a mileage fee is its fairness, the report says. The damage a vehicle does to roadways depends on how far it travels and how much it weighs, both of which can be accounted for in a well-designed mileage fee.

Another benefit is that charging per mile avoids one of the pitfalls of Michigan’s current per-gallon tax on gasoline: As vehicles become more fuel-efficient, revenue from that tax will continue to shrink. By charging based on distance driven rather than fuel burned, a mileage fee could provide a more stable source of funding for our transportation system.

Oregon already has begun implementing a limited mileage fee policy, and other states—including Texas, Minnesota, Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin and Nevada—have studied it as a funding option.

Of course, as a Detroit Free Press story on the report noted, privacy concerns and other hurdles would have to be cleared before such a system could be implemented. But MEC President Chris Kolb said having a discussion now will help Michigan establish a transportation-funding mechanism that is fair, efficient and sustainable in the long run.

“We think a mileage fee is worth examining as a potential future revenue source for our state’s transportation system,” he said. “Implementing the fee would likely take the better part of a decade, so it makes sense to start the conversation and see if it’s the right fit for Michigan.”

As a world leader in automotive technology, Michigan is a natural fit to develop the technology and policies a mileage fee would require, Kolb added.

MEC commissioned the report from SMART, a transportation research initiative at the University of Michigan. The two groups held a briefing on the report this morning in Lansing, followed by a panel discussion featuring Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation; John Austin, nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution; and Conan Smith, executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.

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Photo courtesy Chris Chan via Flickr.

 

Report: Overused pesticides injure Michigan workers and homeowners

A golf course employee spilled insecticide on his wet shoes. He awoke in the middle of the night, vomiting with a headache and a numb right foot.

A worker with holes in his gloves sprayed an herbicide at a blueberry farm. He didn’t wash his hands before eating lunch, and developed a sore throat, stomach pain and vomiting.

A homeowner mixed pool chemicals incorrectly and they exploded in his face. The accident left him with first- and second-degree burns, a collapsed lung and other serious injuries. He spent 31 days in the hospital.

These are just a few of the cases outlined in a new Michigan Department of Community Health report on accidents involving pesticides. With spring cleaning season underway, the report is a timely reminder that the household disinfectants, swimming pool chemicals and other pesticides many people purchase this time of year can cause serious injury and even death.

Most of those accidents can be avoided by taking basic precautions. And in many cases, there is no need to use toxic chemicals in the first place. Read more

Friday linkaround: Fracking, pollution and ancient hunters

The weekend’s just about here! Before you hit the soccer fields or tackle that yard work, here’s a quick look at some of the stories we’ve been following this week.

Fracking. The Department of Environmental Quality took a step forward with new proposed rules for fracking operations, but MEC and other environmental groups said they don’t go far enough to protect Michigan’s water resources and public health. For instance, the rules require drillers to disclose what chemicals they inject into the ground, but not until they’ve already done the drilling. “Some residents want to be proactive about testing their drinking wells,” MEC Policy Director James Clift told the Detroit Free Press, “but without knowing which chemicals they are going to be using, it’s a little trickier.” We’d also like to see a greater focus on ensuring that water withdrawals for fracking don’t harm Michigan’s world-class trout streams.

Straits pipeline. Speaking of protecting our water resources, we were glad to see more state officials join the discussion about how to protect the Great Lakes from the looming threat of an oil spill. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and DEQ Director Dan Wyant sent a letter to Enbridge, the company that owns a pair of 61-year-old pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac, asking for information about the pipelines and what the company is doing to prevent a spill. According to John Flesher’s Associated Press story, “‘Because of where they are, any failure will have exceptional, indeed catastrophic effects,’ their letter said. ‘And because the magnitude of the resulting harm is so great, there is no margin for error. It is imperative we pursue a proactive, comprehensive approach to ensure this risk is minimized, and work together to prevent tragedy before it strikes.’”

Toxic byproducts. It was also an interesting week in the Legislature. The House this week took up a package of bills that—as we wrote here recently—would allow contractors to use coal ash and other hazardous materials as construction fill or as a bed for roads and driveways without getting permission from the property owner. Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson noted that the bills have so far moved quietly through the House. “That’s unfortunate given the legislation’s potential impact on the land and ground water all Michigan residents share,” Dickerson wrote. “The coming election season would be an ideal time to ask your own representative or senator whose interests they’ll be looking out as the hazardous waste bills make their way toward Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk.” Indeed.

Transportation funding. Much more attention has been focused on some other House legislation: A package of bills aimed at fixing Michigan’s crumbling roads. The funding proposal is a step toward improving our roads, but as MLive notes—and as we wrote last week—none of the money would go to public transportation. “With vehicle miles traveled down for the ninth straight year, public transit is increasing its importance in the Michigan transportation system,” MEC President Chris Kolb said in testimony before the House Transportation Committee. “It’s more than just a network of roads and bridges. We need to fund the whole system, not just a part of it.” Some 97 million passengers used public transportation in Michigan in 2012. Yet—as our Transportation for Michigan friends point out—the last time lawmakers gave public transit funding a boost, the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” ruled the airwaves and the Soviet Union was still a thing.

Air pollution. There was also important news at the federal level this week when the Supreme Court said the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to enforce its cross-state pollution rule. That means the agency can use the Clean Air Act to regulate air pollution from coal-fired power plants and other facilities that is carried on the wind across state lines. The Court’s decision will influence how Michigan’s utilities make decisions about their aging coal plants, and could help speed the state’s transition to clean energy. (Meanwhile, legal scholars and schadenfreude enthusiasts noted a “cringeworthy blunder” Justice Antonin Scalia made in his opinion on the case.)

Eureka! Finally, archaeology buffs—and pretty much everyone who likes things that are cool—had their minds blown this week by a discovery beneath Lake Huron. University of Michigan researchers found the remnants of ice-age hunting structures 120 feet beneath the lake’s surface. The blinds and other stone features were built some 9,000 years ago by prehistoric hunters to corral caribou as they migrated across what was then a land bridge. The structures were kept relatively pristine by the lake’s calm waters, and “probably would’ve been bulldozed away for a Walmart parking lot by now” if they were on land, an archaeologist told USA Today. Yet another reason to love the Great Lakes.

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Paleo-Indian photo courtesy Michigan DNR.

Transportation proposal a step forward on road funding, but detour bypasses public transit

There’s not much left to say about the sorry state of Michigan’s roads.

Oakland County alone has 660 miles in need of resurfacing. Tire insurance sales are through the roof. And then there was that picture of a pothole-repair truck swallowed by an epic pothole.

We all agree: Enough talk – let’s fix our roads.

A proposal from House Speaker Jase Bolger aims to do just that. Unfortunately, it aims to do only that.

As our Transportation for Michigan (Trans4M) allies point out in a new blog post, Bolger’s plan would raise an estimated $450 million in 2015 to fix roads. That’s less than half of what’s needed, but it’s a first step.

The problem is that the plan skirts a significant portion of the usual formula for allocating transportation funding as outlined in a law called Act 51. That means all of the money would go to roads. Public transportation would get nothing.

Here’s a breakdown from Trans4M of how Bolger’s proposal would shortchange public transit by sidestepping the top half of the Act 51 formula:

Read more

Tug of war: Senate approves trails package while House panel cuts funding for—you guessed it—trails

The Senate today approved a package of bills to establish a Pure Michigan Trail Network – an encouraging sign that state lawmakers recognize the important role world-class trails and other outdoor recreation assets can play in growing local economies and enhancing quality of life.

The Senate package allows the director of the Department of Natural Resources to give trails and towns the Pure Michigan designation upon recommendation from the Natural Resources Commission. It also gives a nod to our state’s outstanding paddling by allowing the director to designate Pure Michigan Water Trails.  The bills also would change the Snowmobile and Trailways Advisory Council to the Trails Advisory Council.

“This package will bring the entire Michigan trails system into the spotlight,” said Nancy Krupiarz, executive director of the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance. “We have an incredible array of trails of all types, and we want to recognize them all and the towns that embrace them.”

The legislation makes place-based investments in outdoor assets a centerpiece of Michigan’s reinvention strategy, said Brad Garmon, MEC’s director of conservation and emerging issues. It also celebrates best-in-class trails that showcase Michigan’s natural beauty and cultural sites, rather than slapping the Pure Michigan label on lower-profile trails that serve an important practical purpose but don’t reinforce the Pure Michigan brand. Read more