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Speed limit forum: Smart engineering is best way to ensure safe roadways for all users

Panelists discussed the merits of proposed changes in Michigan’s speed limit laws at Wednesday’s forum hosted at the Michigan Municipal League and moderated by Tim Fischer of Transportation for Michigan and the Michigan Environmental Council. Concerns about restricting methods of setting speed limits to the 85th percentile rule were expressed by several panelists, while consensus emerged that engineering and planning fixes are the best way to ensure safe and efficient roadways for all users.

Potential legislation being discussed would mandate that the 85th percentile method of setting speed limits is used more uniformly across Michigan (currently, many municipalities are setting limits in response to other factors such as pedestrian volumes on a roadway). The 85th percentile method sets the speed limit at the point which is exceeded by 15% of drivers. If 15% of vehicles in a 25 MPH posted zone were traveling faster than 30 MPH, the method would set the speed limit at 30 MPH. Setting limits based on this method relies on research that shows that car accidents are reduced when the 85th percentile is the posted speed limit, and that drivers respond more to roadway factors such as visibility distance than they do to the posted speed limit.

Legislation is expected to be introduced in the next few weeks.

Tim Fischer moderated the panel

The majority of panelists saw fault with passing rules that would require setting speed limits based on just one of many tools available to planners. Carolyn Grawi, Director of Advocacy and Education at the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living said that while the 85th percentile tool makes sense for certain roadways, such as restricted-access highways, setting speed limits with the tool across the board ignores local contexts such as roads near school zones and neighborhoods. Grawi also opposed using the tool in residential areas based on the potential that actual speeds may “creep” up if posted speeds are raised. Even slight increases in vehicle speeds decrease survivorship from pedestrian and vehicle accidents and make it more difficult for individuals with disabilities, young children, and seniors to navigate roadways. Read more

WMEAC report sizes up climate resiliency in Grand Rapids

A photo from West Michigan went semi-viral last April because the scene it depicted was so novel: Why was a fish swimming past the window of a Grand Rapids office building?

The fish was exploring new territory opened up by a record-setting flood that battered the city. Days of heavy rain drove the Grand River so high that it nearly breached floodwalls and inundated the downtown area. The flood inflicted $10 million in damage throughout Kent County, drove some 1,700 people from their homes and led Grand Rapids to ask residents to help protect the city with sandbags.

More worrisome than the flood itself are projections that such volatile weather-heavy downpours, extreme heat, freeze-thaw cycles -will become more common in the Great Lakes region as climate change becomes more pronounced. Officials in many cities recognize that infrastructure upgrades and other initiatives will be essential for adapting to new weather patterns.

A report released in December by the West Michigan Environmental Action Council aims to get a conversation going in greater Grand Rapids about how to build a city that can withstand the slings and arrows of a changing climate.

The project arose when the U.S. Conference of Mayors recognized Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell for his leadership on climate change issues and granted the city $25,000 for new climate-related projects. Heartwell gave half the money to the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks for tree planting. The rest went to WMEAC-an MEC member group-to prepare a report on the city’s climate resiliency.

You can read the report online here.

We checked in with Nick Occhipinti, WMEAC’s director of policy and community activism, to learn more about the report’s findings and its recommendations for Grand Rapids.

MEC: What, to you, are the take-home points from the report? Read more

Tuesday linkaround: Solar soars while fossil fuels wither without water

Tuesday linkaround!

If it’s links-(not lynx)-you’re after, a good place to start is this piece from Grist, which will connect you to a host of stories about how the solar energy industry is making serious headway.

That’s good news because-as the deepening drought emergency in California attests-the continued availability of the massive amounts of water required for conventional electricity is no sure thing. The Golden State is far from alone in experiencing water scarcity, and a column in Forbes makes a strong case that the water intensity of fuels must be a consideration when planning our energy future:

Recent media coverage has been quick to pin the challenge of reliability as one that only applies to renewables. The logic goes something like this: if the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, we won’t have electricity, making these energy sources unreliable. But if we don’t have reliable access to abundant water resources to produce, move and manage energy that comes from water-intensive energy resources like fossil fuels, this argument against the intermittency of renewables becomes moot.

Of course, the cost of pollution also must be part of the conversation when making decisions about our energy system. Here in Michigan, where we don’t have any coal to mine, we tend to focus on the pollution that leaves power-plant smokestacks. But as a new Associated Press analysis makes clear, the coal industry has inflicted staggering damage to waterways in mining country: Read more

State of the State: Scant mention of critical “Pure Michigan” natural resource issues

Gov. Rick Snyder

Governor Rick Snyder’s fourth State of the State speech Thursday lasted just over an hour. The first two-thirds highlighted what he saw as his accomplishments, leaving only the last third of his time to discuss future initiatives.  In those few minutes, Gov. Snyder made disappointingly sparse mention of the “Pure Michigan” natural resource and public health issues that are so critical to our quality of life.

 What we liked:

1. Snyder vowed stronger action on combating invasive species, promising money in his proposed budget for same. That’s good. Michigan needs to continue to pressure Washington to protect the great lakes. Michigan also needs strong stewardship of the biodiversity that protects our natural assets from invaders. He cited both aquatic and terrestrial invasive species, which is important. Everyone has seen the loathsome Asian carp. But land-based species like the Asian longhorned beetle, which has an appetite for maple and hardwood trees, puts a huge portion of our forests at risk.

2. He applauded the restructuring of Michigan’s hunting and fishing license fees. The fees were increased for the first time in decades and simplified. MEC supported the changes. The bill raises about $20 million for natural resource conservation and management by increasing fees for hunting and fishing licenses. The money will help hires dozens more conservation officers, increasing protection for Michigan’s splendid flora and fauna.

What we had hoped to hear more on:

1. Following a year of public dialogue on energy – which the governor himself initiated – he made only the briefest mention that the discussion would go forward in 2014 and possibly 2015. The state’s hugely successful energy efficiency initiative and renewable energy standard plateaus in 2015. The lack of urgency in the governor’s address was discouraging.  Michigan needs to keep the momentum moving forward. Delay in setting new goals for energy efficiency and renewable energy will potentially cost our state a loss of jobs and much needed investment in our economy.

2. He cited progress, but a lack of “comprehensive reform” to our transportation funding system. He might have been more expansive in reiterating his call for a truly connected transportation system that includes buses, trains, trails and other non-motor vehicle options. Since he has been a leader on public transportation, so we’re not overly concerned with that omission.

3. He suggested that “metal recycling” would be a priority this year, but offered no details. He’s previously called for significant improvements to Michigan’s abysmal recycling rate. We look forward to hearing more about metal recycling and how it might fit in to a comprehensive plan.



Here’s how we would spend $1 billion

You’ve likely heard that Michigan’s year-end financial housekeeping led to the happy conclusion that the state has a projected surplus of $971 million for the next budget year.

As lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder outline their 2015 budget proposals—and with the governor preparing to give his State of the State address tonight—there’s a lot of debate in Lansing about what the state should do with that money.

One Republican proposal would cut the personal income tax rate from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent over four years. Since the money came from taxpayers like you and me, the logic goes, we should get it back in the form of tax relief. But as the Associated Press reported, the proposal would lead to only a $45 reduction in the average person’s tax bill in the first year. The surplus doesn’t look so big when it’s spread that thin.

But invested in the right programs, $971 million is a lot of cash that can create lasting benefits for Michigan.

And so, we humbly submit to the state’s leaders the Michigan Environmental Council’s proposal for several smart ways to invest the surplus. Readers, please share your ideas in the comments below. And to the Legislature and the Snyder administration: Let’s talk! Read more

Sarah Mullkoff hired to lead MEC’s energy policy work

Sarah Mullkoff

Sarah Mullkoff

Sarah Mullkoff has been hired as energy program director for the Michigan Environmental Council, the organization’s president, Chris Kolb, announced last week.

Mullkoff has worked in natural resource policy in a variety of capacities, most recently as energy & climate policy coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation. There, she advanced clean energy policies and carbon reduction campaigns for NWF’s six-state Midwest region.

She previously worked for Clean Water Action as Michigan campaigns coordinator; serves on boards of directors for the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association and the Michigan Student Sustainability Coalition; and volunteers for social and environmental justice causes. She also serves on the steering committee for RE-AMP, a 160-strong coalition of Midwest nonprofits and foundations working on energy policy and climate change.

Mullkoff is a graduate of Michigan State University’s James Madison School of Public Policy with a major in International Relations and specialization in Science, Technology, Environment and Public Policy. Read more

A measured victory for the Au Sable

Deer on Au SableA pristine stretch of Michigan’s Au Sable River will keep its scenic character and is safer from pollution caused by oil and gas drilling, thanks to a decision last week from the Department of Natural Resources.

You can read MEC’s statement applauding the decision here.

As we wrote here previously, several parcels along the river’s “Holy Waters” stretch were leased to the Canadian energy company Encana in an October auction. Some of the land was designated for development, meaning Encana could put surface wells, storage tanks and heavy equipment right alongside the revered fly-fishing waters that gave rise to Trout Unlimited.

The Anglers of the Au Sable, an MEC member group, flagged the threat of oil and gas development along the river and enlisted members of the public to urge DNR Director Keith Creagh not to authorize the leases. MEC and other allies joined that effort.

The decision from DNR Director Keith Creagh means no surface drilling will be allowed in the river corridor, but it’s important to note that oil and gas beneath the leased parcels can still be accessed horizontally from wells drilled elsewhere. So, the river is better protected from the sights, sounds and smells of industrial activity and the threat of pollution from spilled or leaked fracking fluids. But there are still real threats to the groundwater resources that feed the Au Sable and provide its steady flow.

We look forward to continuing to work with the DNR and our allies to put in place the strongest possible protections  for the Au Sable and freshwater resources throughout Michigan.


Deer crossing Holy Waters photo courtesy David Smith via Flickr.

Michigan DNR poised to allow fracking along Au Sable’s ‘Holy Waters’

The Michigan Environmental Council and our allies are deeply concerned about pending mineral leases that would allow oil and gas drilling along a section of the Au Sable River so pristine and revered by trout anglers that it’s known as the Holy Waters.

The parcels were among those up for bid in an October auction of mineral leases on state land. The winning bidder on the leases was Encana, a Canadian company with plans to drill some 500 wells across northern Michigan using the controversial method called fracking.

You can see a map of the parcels in question here.

Leading the opposition to the leases are the Anglers of the Au Sable, an MEC member group. Here’s a brief video from the Anglers that provides a fuller understanding of the special place we’re talking about.

MEC has joined the Anglers, Grayling Township, local Realtors, business owners and fellow environmental groups in signing a letter to Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh asking him not to authorize the leases. He will announce his decision at Thursday’s meeting of the Natural Resources Commission. You can read the letter here.

Read more

100 Michigan tourist attractions: How many have you visited?

Trivia time! This quiz, gauging how many Michigan tourist attractions you’ve visited, is making the rounds on the intertubes this week. Our communications director scored a 69, then suffered the slings and arrows of lesser Michiganders who complained bitterly of the unfairness of it all.

Well, we tend to agree. Each of Detroit’s three casinos earn a point, while landmarks like Tahquamenon Falls and Beaver Island aren’t included? And no South Manitou Island or Seashell City? How about the Cross in the Woods? What’s your score? And what key spots were overlooked? Remember, it’s for fun. As long as you don’t beat our score.


The curious, quiet project to widen seven miles of U.S. 23 between A2 and I-96

The effects of additional stormwater runoff and other environmental impacts should be evaluated as part of the proposed highway widening.

It’s a most curious project, and a quiet one so far: The Michigan Department of Transportation wants to widen 7.3 miles of road shoulder along U.S. 23 near Ann Arbor. The ostensible goal is to make it safer and more comfortable for motorists.

We disagree. The proposed Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) project is much more than a benign “shoulder widening.” It is actually the addition of an extra lane with the potential to degrade nearby lakes and wetlands, impact air quality, create unsafe driving conditions and possibly worsen the congestion it is designed to alleviate.

Instead of trying to squeeze another too-narrow lane onto a high-speed freeway, MEC believes MDOT should be spending time and money getting commuter rail service – the so-called WALLY line between Ann Arbor and Howell – underway.

So MEC has formally asked the U.S. Department of Transportation for a more thorough review of the plan.  MDOT, by attempting to classify the endeavor as a series of multiple, smallish projects, has tried to skirt the environmental reviews that should be conducted.  It’s no small matter. We’re talking about 1.6 million square feet of new impervious pavement creating entirely new traffic patterns for drivers between Brighton and Ann Arbor.

If you’re into the details, our letter to MDOT is available here. You can get involved by writing your own letter, based on this draft template we’ve put together (it will ask you to open a Word document); or by attending the Dec. 12 public meeting from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Northfield Township Hall, 8350 Main St., Suite A, Whitmore Lake.