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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

Legislation: Toxic industrial fill someone puts on your property is, well, none of your business

Should a property owner know if a contractor is placing a four-foot thick bed of toxic industrial waste below their businesses’ new parking lot? Should a homeowner know if the same industrial waste is going underneath the road in front of their home?  Should you be informed if industrial byproducts are present on a parcel of property you are buying?

Not under bills being considered in the Michigan legislature that allow for expanded use of industrial byproducts  – like fly ash from coal-fired power plant smokestacks, foundry sands, and sludge from pulp and paper mills.

Under these bills, no permission would be needed from property owners before industrial byproducts can be used as construction fill or for road beds or in parking lots.  Current owners would be left in the dark, and future owners may never know of the liability inherent in the properties they purchase.  In many cases, that fill should permanently alter what that property can be used for in the future to protect public health.

The Michigan Environmental Council supports the reuse of industrial by-products when protection of public health can be assured and use of the materials is monitored and tracked in a way that reasonably controls public exposure.  That is not the case with House bills 5400, 5401 and 5402.

A vote in the House Natural Resources Committee is currently scheduled on the legislation this Thursday, April 17. Please contact your local legislator and ask them to oppose HB 5400 through 5402 until these concerns can be addressed. 

Our number one concern is the failure of the bills to require people who use these materials to get permission from property owners.  The bills allow impairment of property rights, without permission from the landowner or compensation for the restrictions on the future uses of the property.

Other issues include:

Read more

Remembering an icon of environmental law

While we’re embarrassingly late in doing so, we want to note the passing of a giant of environmental law. Joseph Sax, who died March 9 at 78, taught law at the University of Michigan from 1966 to 1986 and pioneered legal principles for natural resources that remain the bedrock of many environmental protections today.

According to Berkeley Law,

Sax began his environmental legal work in the mid-1960s before environmental protection was even recognized as a legal field, and authored the groundbreaking Michigan Environment Protection Act. Popularly known as the “Sax Act,” it was the world’s first modern environmental law based on the public trust doctrine, which identifies natural resources as a public trust that demands protection.

In short, the law enshrined the right of ordinary citizens to take action in the courts to protect air, water and natural resources from pollution or other damage.

As a New York Times obituary notes, the public trust doctrine Sax developed was used in close to 300 state and federal cases between 1997 and 2008, and has been adopted in numerous other countries.

The Sax Act provided the legal framework for one of Michigan’s best-known environmental cases. In the 1970s, environmental groups sued under MEPA to block oil and gas drilling in the Pigeon River Country State Forest – part of a long, complicated court battle that eventually led to an agreement that restricted oil and gas development in the forest and served as a model for resource management.

Sax’s influence also is present in a current case in which Encana Oil and Gas USA and Chesapeake Energy Corporation are charged with colluding to hold down bid prices in a 2010 auction of oil and gas leases. The public trust doctrine is at issue in the case because the companies are alleged to have shortchanged Michigan’s citizens, who the state’s constitution says must benefit—via the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund—when private companies profit from a public resource.

“It would be impossible,” a former student of Sax’s wrote, “to overstate Joe’s influence on environmental and natural resources law over the last half century. In the 1960s, he and a handful of others literally invented the field.”

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Photo: Joseph Sax in 1967. Courtesy University of Michigan Law School.

Keystone pipeline decision muddied by glaring lack of federal energy roadmap

The Kalamazoo River is still fouled four years after the Enbridge tar sands spill.

The public comment period on the Keystone XL pipeline closes tomorrow, Friday March 7. Secretary of State John Kerry will then make his recommendation to President Obama, who will reject or approve the permit to build the northern leg of this pipeline. If built, it would transport 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil every day from Alberta, Canada to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico.

The decision is about more than just one pipeline. It is about the ecological destruction that will result from expanded development of Alberta tar sands, more risk and intensive use of pipelines that crisscross Michigan, and a perpetuation of American dependence on finite and increasingly expensive fossil fuels.

This issue also highlights our great nation’s utter lack of a comprehensive, or even coherent, energy strategy – the kind of roadmap that would help us decide which direction to turn at this critical juncture. Read more

Michigan’s Sleeping Bear, ‘America’s Most Beautiful Place,’ set to earn Congress’ first wilderness designation in years

(Second update: President Obama signed the bill March 13, designating roughly half of the Sleeping Bear Dunes as a federal wilderness area!)

(Wednesday morning update! The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill on a voice vote late Tuesday, and it is on its way to President Obama’s desk. Said U.S. Senator Carl Levin: “This is good news for all of us who cherish the matchless beauty and the ecological importance of Sleeping Bear Dunes.”)

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Michigan’s iconic and globally rare freshwater dune system is on the verge of getting Congress’ first wilderness designation since 2009, capping more than a decade of discussion about how best to protect one of the region’s signature natural areas while keeping it open to hunters, anglers, beach lovers and others.

The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Conservation and Recreation Act would designate as wilderness 32,500 acres of the park that gained national attention in 2011 when Good Morning America viewers voted it the nation’s most beautiful place. The bill is set for a House vote this evening and is expected to land on President Obama’s desk for his signature.

The bill is a rarity for the polarized 113th Congress, which hasn’t designated a single acre for protection under the Wilderness Act. (Neither did the 112th – the first Congress not to add wilderness since 1966.)  It enjoys bipartisan support among Michigan’s congressional delegation—Democrats Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow co-sponsored the Senate version, which passed in June, while Republican Dan Benishek introduced the House bill—and has the backing of local residents and the National Park Service. Read more