Ohio Gov. Strickland Unveils "Advanced" Energy Strategy

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland earlier this week unveiled an 8-point strategic initiative to diversify his state's energy portfolio with renewable power, generate tens of thousands of jobs, and modernize Ohio's economy for the 21st century.

Perhaps the most important feature of the Governor's plan would require utilities to generate 25 percent of Ohio's electricity from "advanced energy" sources by 2025. Advanced energy sources presumably would include wind, grass, and solar as well as so-called clean coal and nuclear.

Regardless, twenty four states in the Union - including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York - already have set similiar goals.

In his announcement, the governor took direct aim at critics who say promoting alternative energy sources in the Midwest will kill jobs, raise electrical rates, and slow economic growth. Here are excerpts from his remarks:

"Our energy policy is not simply a matter of what we stand to lose. It is a matter of what we stand to gain – jobs. Energy can be a catalyst for new jobs, bringing forth a new day, a new economy, a new Ohio.

An economic analysis by the Apollo Alliance found that an expanded use of renewable energy would provide Ohio more than 20,000 new manufacturing jobs building the products necessary to harvest the energy of the wind, sun, water and other renewable resources. And that represents only a fraction of the potential jobs to be gained in the research and operation of not only renewable but other advanced energy options.

Advanced energy offers the promise of high paying jobs – jobs that would take advantage of Ohio’s strengths in manufacturing, our location, and our workforce. And all the while we will help power our economy with cleaner fuels and take control of our energy destiny.We now face a choice.

We can embrace unchecked monopolies presented under the guise of a deregulated marketplace, a false marketplace that would stifle our economy, and leave to chance the development of innovation.

Or we can embrace a carefully crafted hybrid approach that recognizes how we generate, distribute, and price electricity affects every one of us every day, and acknowledges that maintaining an adequate supply of electricity is a fundamental responsibility of our state government.

Cynics might say that our best days are behind us. But they are wrong. Energy can be the key to our economic renaissance."

Click here to read related coverage from the Toledo Blade.

Click here to read related coverage from the Dayton Daily News.

Waiting for Green Power to Tip

Taylor, MI, which is located near Detroit, is one of countless cities in the Great Lakes and across the U.S. turning to renewable energy sources to power residential homes, slash escalating municipal costs, and reduce dependence on dirty coal plants.

But it's Mayor Cameron Priebe's reasoned perspective on the growing interest in wind power that's really worth taking away from this story, because it reveals what it will take to push civic support for alternative energy over the top.

"This isn't a movement yet," he told the Detroit News.

Wikipedia defines a movement as "a change in the way a number of different disciplines do their work." In other words, it's a clear and discernible shift in how a broad swath of people perceive, talk about, and act on a certain issue. When it comes to the issue of energy innovation, the movement for change in Michigan (and Ohio) still struggles to win over the proponents for the old way of doing things.

How do we know? Check out the Michigan Chamber of Commerce position on state legislation requiring energy companies to generate a specific amount of their power from renewable sources. To this widely influential group of business leaders, mandating alternative energy standards will drive up energy costs, escalate dependence on unreliable power sources (the wind isn't always blowing), and ultimately hinder Michigan's ability to compete for new jobs and investment. Better, they say, to build a great big nuclear plant.

At the same time, advocates for green power argue exactly the opposite. Investing in wind, solar, and other alternatives, they say, will generate jobs, diversify the power grid and the economy, and boost competitiveness in the global economy.

To put it simply, the movement for green power has yet to reach a tipping point. The old way of thinking about the state's long-term energy future is preferred to embracing innovation, unleashing entrepreneurialism, and taking risk.

It's only a matter of time before this moribound thinking is overcome, the "movement" for change gains a critical mass, and a whole new reality emerges. Twenty four states across the nation have adopted legislation requiring that a minimum amount of their power comes from green sources. The increasingly urgent question is how long will it take Michigan and Ohio to get on board, or come up with something better.

Ten of those green-powered states - California, New Jersey, and lil ole Delaware included- also rank among the top ten states most prepared to compete in the global economy. Michigan and Ohio, by contrast, have yet to adopt modern statewide energy standards - an indicator of openness to innovation - and both states fail to crack the top 20.

"This isn't a movement yet, but I hope it becomes a movement," Taylor Mayor Cameron Priebe told the Detroit News. "We're raising public awareness."

Michigan Mayor Takes Great Lakes to GOP

The mayor of Michigan's second largest city is calling on the Republican presidential candidates to take a stand on a comprehensive plan to revitalize the greater Great Lakes region of the United States.

In a 33-second video question submitted for the CNN/You Tube Republican debate, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell says investing in a proposed strategy to clean up the globally unique waters of the Great Lakes is much more than an environmental issue. He says the move is both a path to, and a requirement for, restoring economic prosperity for the American Midwest in the 21st century.

"Some call it the Rust Belt because we're moving too slowly from the Industrial Era to the Digital Age," says Mayor Heartwell, who also serves as secretary of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. "The federal Great Lakes Restoration Act would help accelerate this transition by launching a full-scale cleanup of our unique waterways and putting tens of thousands of people to work at jobs like fixing sewers, restoring wetlands, and building cities equipped to compete globally."

A major public works project to rehab the Great Lakes was formally introduced in December 2005. The bipartisan proposal recommends, among other things, cleaning up toxic contamination in rivers and harbors, reclaiming critical natural habitats, and modernizing outdated sewer infrastructure. It would also put thousands of contractors, consultants, engineers, scientists, and other highly skilled professional to work in a region where 'jobs' and 'competitiveness' are top priorities.

But the $20 billion proposal continues to languish in Congress because lawmakers view it as a big, expensive, one dimensional environmental project....if they view it at all. And presidential candidates, too, have yet to recognize the strategic value of the issue, even as Great Lakes voters hunger for bold ideas to speed up a wrenching economic transition.

Republican candidates who seize on the Great Lakes restoration issue would likely strengthen their position among the party base, and earn favor with independent voters, particularly in key swing states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan, where Mayor Heartwell's city sits at the epicenter of the state's fiscal and moral conservative base.

Polling suggests an overwhelming majority of Republican voters view the Great Lakes as a vital economic and environmental asset. But those citizens also worry the waterways are in poor condition and vulnerable to continued degradation. That's why surveys also suggest conservatives support spending public dollars to modernize sewage plants, cleanup toxic hot spots, and otherwise restore and secure the health of the Great Lakes. Democrats and Independents feel much the same way.

In other words, revitalizing America's Great Lakes is a winning issue for Republicans. A strong position supporting the proposal enables presidential hopefuls to cross partisan lines, demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the challenges and opporuntities facing the Upper Midwest and, perhaps more importantly, distance themselves from the out-of-touch policies and practices of the Bush Administration.

Whether they have an opportunity to publicly respond to Mayor Heartwell's question on the CNN/YouTube stage remains to be seen. His is #1,456 of 1,460 videos submitted to date. Just 38 of nearly 3,000 questions submitted were put to Democrats in the July 2007 debate. The live Republican debate is scheduled for Nov. 28, 2007.

But maybe some smart campaign staffer will pick up on it before then.

Portland. Fast. Detroit. Slow.

Not surprisingly, Detroit, MI and Portland, OR find themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum in Fast Company.com's latest rankings of the top global cities.

Portland has spent the past two decades minimizing highway construction, expanding public transit service, reigning in sprawling development, reclaiming abandoned industrial properties, and embracing diversity. As a result, Fast Company, one of the more future-oriented business magazines on the rack, ranks the City of Roses among Stockholm, Chicago, and Vancouver as one of the most sustainable cities in the world.

Detroit, by sharp contrast, has spent the past two decades making essentially the opposite moves. The city continues to expand highways, ignore mass transit, enable runaway exurban development, and remain divided across racial, economic, geographical, and political lines. As a consequence, Fast Company counts the Motor City among Havana, New Orleans, and Budapest as one of the world's "urban centers going nowhere....slowly."

An entirely separate study published by CEO's for Cities on Portland's innovative approach provides new insight on just how much that kind of moribound thinking costs urban residents economically, environmentally, and socially.

After two decades of extending public transit service, redirecting growth back into the central city, and promoting development that encourages biking and walking, Portland residents now drive about 20 percent fewer miles everyday when compared to commuters in other large metro areas.

In fact, according to Portland's Green Dividend, the study authored by economist Joe Cortright, vehicle miles traveled by city residents peaked in 1996 and have since flat-lined or even declined. And that, it turns out, frees up all sorts of money for Portlanders to spend on other things besides gas and cars.

The way Cortright figures it, Portlanders annually save approximately $1.1 billion by avoiding car travel, and that translates into some $800 million additional dollars spent locally rather than exported to gas and car producing states, like Michigan.

Cortright also estimates that the 2.8 billion miles Portland commuters avoid every year translates into some 100 million fewer hours traveling which, in turn, translates to an additional $1.5 billion in precious time saved.

In other words, Portland's commitment to actively advance the practice of sustainability is not only attracting new residents, modern businesses, and national honors. It's putting real dollars in real people's pockets. Meanwhile, Detroit's puzzling inability to adapt continues to draw stiff jabs.

"Last one out, shut off the manufacturing line," Fast Company declares.

Government Games Stall Growth in Waukegan, IL

The cleanup of Waukegan Harbor in Illinois would increase local property values by a projected $800 million, signal the city's transition from the waning Industrial Era to the emerging Digital Age, and set the stage for a new century of prosperity in Waukegan, where the per capita annual income is just over $17,000 and 14 percent of the population is below the poverty line.

But state and federal officials seem determined to bungle the $36 million deal, which would remove from the harbor bottom more than a quarter million cubic yards of sediment laced with PCB, a nasty little persistent pollutant that's linked to human health problems like cancer.

Local leaders appear to be on their game. In 2003 they adopted A 21st Century Vision for Waukegan's Lakefront and Downtown. The overarching goal is to bring new residential, commercial, and recreational opportunities to the Lake Michigan waterfront. The plan has received national attention and recently won the Daniel Burnham Award for excellence in planning.

But designing a waterfront where people want to live, shop, and play in many ways means minimizing industry and all its related consequences to the local environmental and aestethic value. And that, apparently is something the federal government won't stand for.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency earlier today withdrew its support for the harbor cleanup - and the $23+ million in federal funding to execute it - because local leaders in Waukegan want to ban future industrial uses on the waterfront after the project is complete. Instead of barge traffic they want to promote recreational boating and other activities that elevate the region's overall quality of life.

The move comes just five months after state government nearly killed the cleanup over a budget balancing fiasco.

City leaders now are pushing to decertify the harbor for industrial use, according to a report in today's Lake County News-Sun. But the fiasco is the latest example of state and federal leaders' inability to grapple with the basic elements of a modern development strategy for the greater Great Lakes region.

As the local leaders in Waukegan strive to organize future growth around new residences and public recreational opportunities on a vibrant waterfront, the feds are, in effect, arguing for cement factories and drywall manufacturers.

To be certain, the region needs these important industries. But it's not 1950 anymore. They are no longer the highest and best use for a globally unique lakeshore.

Eyeing the White House, Obama Calls for Hearing on Lake Michigan Pollution

In an bid to distinguish himself as the champion of America's Great Lakes, Illinois Senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama last week called for federal hearings on the State of Indiana's recent decision to allow British Petroleum to dramatically increase the amount of pollution the company pumps into Lake Michigan.

"This issue underscores the challenges faced by the United States as we pursue the dual goals of improved energy security and environmental restoration," Senator Obama said in an August 15, 2007 letter to California Senator Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee.

The letter doesn't break any ground in terms of fresh thinking about the economic and environmental significance of aggressive action to protect and restore the largest system of fresh surface water on the planet. But Senator Obama nonetheless becomes the first presidential candidate from either side of the political aisle to publicly address the importance of sustaining the health of the Great Lakes for future generations. It's a start.

And the next day the oil giant aggreed to revisit its plan to dump millions of pounds of additional waste into Lake Michigan every year.

Waukesha, WI's Dueling Water Agendas

For most Great Lakes communities, water shortages are just some strange and tragic plot line to screen when the movie comes to town. But for some - like Waukesha, WI - the story is much more real and close to home. In fact, the Milwaukee suburb has become the Jekyll and Hyde of the regional water use drama.

Located 30 miles west inland from Lake Michigan, the community represents both the challenges to, and opportunities for, sustaining the Great Lakes water supply for future generations.

On one hand, Waukesha, which lies just outside the Lake Michigan Basin, symbolizes all that is wrong with the current water use philosophy in the Midwest. Shortsighted land use planning and suburban sprawl prompts a building boom of new homes, strip malls, and big-box stores in what was previously a rural landscape. The number of new residents and businesses outpaces the availability of local water supplies. So the town reflexively turn to bigger pipes, larger pumps, and more plentiful water sources to meet growing demand.

Waukesha's ongoing campaign to tap Lake Michigan's flush reserves has infuriated environmentalists and burdened the region's elected officials for years now.

On the other hand, Waukesha also has begun to reveal a different, much more astute identity. The community forged a water conservation strategy, something most Great Lakes cities continue to ignore. They've begun to patrol water use, adopting strategies such as lawn watering restrictions in the hot summer months. And they're taking innovative measures to encourage the local population to take an active role in reducing the community's overall water use.

The town this year will launch a contest to see which households and families can achieve the most dramatic reduction in water consumption. The grand prize is $500 and, of course, free water for a year. (If you really want people to conserve water, raise the rates.)

"We want to tap into people's competitive spirit to win prizes by creating this contest," Todd Stair, a contest organizer, recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Waukesha was once known worldwide for its water. Now let's be known for our water conservation."

That's a laudable goal. But in many ways Waukesha's push to promote simple water conservation measures strengthens it's moral authority to tap the Big Lake, even as it continues to sprawl. Why should they be denied as others pump away? Whether the community ultimately is a force for good or evil in the campaign to sustain the Great Lakes remains to be seen.

Michigan Inks Biggest Wind Project Yet

Now that a major power company has signed a long-term deal to buy its energy, Stony Corners Wind Farm becomes the most ambitious wind power project yet to get the green light in Michigan.

The facility, which could open as early as March 2008, will be built on 6,500 acres near Cadillac in central Michigan. When fully built out, the facility is projected to generate more than 100 mega watts of renewable energy. That's enough to power approximately 30,000 homes.

Entrepreneurs have proposed similiarly ambitious wind projects. Rich VanderVeen's 21-turbine facility proposed in Oceana County, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, would span 8,000 acres and generate enough power for all 27,000 people in the county, according to a July 2005 report in the Detroit News. But that project has yet to get off the ground.

Before this week, the Harvest Wind Farm scheduled to be up and running in Michigan's Thumb region by spring 2008 was poised to become the state's largest commercial wind field. Located on 3,200 acres in Huron County, the facility is projected to generate 52.8 mega watts and power some 15,000 homes.

But now, even as elected officials drag their feet on formalizing a modern energy strategy for Michigan, the 8th largest state in the union by population, Heritage Sustainable Energy LLC, a small renewable energy business, is set to break new ground in Michigan's infant green power industry. The firm just inked a 10-year deal to provide wind power to DTE Energy Company, which provides electricity to some 2.2 million people in southeastern Michigan.

"Heritage is very excited to move forward in partnership with DTE Energy to bring clean, renewable energy to Michigan," said Marty Lagina, president of Rock Management Group, the managing partner of Heritage Sustainable Energy.

"It is particularly gratifying that DTE Energy is purchasing renewable energy credits on its own initiative prior to Michigan legislative action on the issue. DTE Energy's decision to partner with us will get us started. We look forward to the state of Michigan taking additional action to encourage the growth of the wind energy business in our state."

In related regional news, Sky Generation, based in Lion's Head, ON, is erecting six more wind turbines on the shore of Lake Huron. Other wind farms already operating on the Lake Huron coast include the 22-turbine Kingsbridge project and a 38-turbine wind farm under construction near Ripley, according to the London Free Press.

Framing False Choices in Minnesota

The dominant political philosophy of the past two-plus decades has been that Americans are overtaxed and that slashing taxes is the key solution to the problem of the day, whatever that may be. But there is new evidence that the ideology is wearing thin. Chris Coleman, for one, is throwing that idea right out the window.

As the mayor of St. Paul, MN, Coleman has pushed for - and recently won approval of - a plan to raise $25 million in bonds to accelerate the revitalization and boost the attractiveness and competitiveness of his city.

The so-called Invest St. Paul Initiative would, among other things, acquire and demolish dilapidated housing, boost small businesses, and revive commercial corridors. The plan is a key piece of Mayor Coleman's campaign to make St. Paul "the Most Livable City in America."

"For 11 years, we didn't increase the size of the [city tax] levy," he said. "Our metro tax rating fell from second to 75th. However, that was not a sign of fiscal prudence. Rather, it was a sign of disinvestment -- and our community is beginning to feel the consequences. We were lured by false choices ... that we could somehow maintain our quality of life without paying for it.''

The mayor's plan sparked some controversy because it focuses intensely in four key neighborhoods, leaving some to wonder what would happen to other parts of town in need of reinvestment.

But the local paper editorialized in favor of the strategy and the City Council recently approved moving forward.

The action signals the public mood about taxes and public investment might be changing. That is certainly the case in Minnesota. Earlier this year, well before the Minneapolis bridge collapsed, Republican Gov. Pawlenty said Minnesota would "never be a bargain basement state" and that cutting taxes was not necessarily a path to modern prosperity. Now community leaders in St. Paul are striking a similiar theme: taxes are the price of civilized society, not necessarily a burden to be relieved of at all costs.

Feds Organize BP Coddling Session

Mary Gade, the Great Lakes regional administrator of the United States' Environmental Protection Agency, personally convened a special summit today in Chicago to present the suits at British Petroleum with a series of recommendations on how they can "minimize" the irresponsible environmental consequences of expanding their oil refinery on the shores of Lake Michigan in Whiting, IN.

In a press release issued by her office, Ms. Gade said she felt compelled to hold the meeting "to get beyond the headlines and emotion" sparked by BP's controversial proposal.

Apparently the thought of private corporations obtaining government permission to dump millions of pounds of pollution and waste annually into Lake Michigan makes people, well, angry.

That emotion, in turn, generates headlines. The Detroit Free Press became the latest big city newspaper to editorialize on the issue: "[BP's] permit paperwork acknowledges the plant's mercury discharges 'show a reasonable potential to exceed water quality standards,' a slackness that shouldn't be tolerated when the health of Lake Michigan is at stake," the paper writes.

And that kind of publicity motivates action. After intially hoping the controversy would blow over, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has ordered a full review of his state's environmental permit process.

Now the feds are sponsoring high level sit downs "to begin a more practical discussion" about protecting Lake Michigan, according to Ms. Gade.

It's not entirely clear to this taxpayer why a government facing spectacular programatic shortfalls and funding deficits is spending scarce resources to hold the hand of a fabulously rich private company in an effort to help them "go beyond compliance," as Ms. Gade puts it.

Nonetheless, here are the stunningly obvious pollution reduction strategies government regulators brought to the attention of BP in today's powwow, as reported by the Chicago Tribune.

  1. Finance projects that reduce pollution from other companies that discharge into the Grand Calumet River or Lake Michigan.
  2. Divert all or some of the refinery's wastewater to nearly municipal treatment plants.
  3. Pay for sewer upgrades in neighboring towns to keep sewage and storm water out of Lake Michigan.
  4. Set aside money to filter pollution that seeps into the lake. Projects could include wetlands, shoreline restoration or storm-water retention ponds.
  5. Make additional upgrades at the refinery's water treatment plant to reduce the amount of pollution flowing into Lake Michigan.
  6. Spend more money to dredge contaminated muck from the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal.
  7. Join Indiana to pay for other projects that remove contaminated sediment in the Grand Calumet River.
Finding innovative ways to ensure BP bears the true cost of their operation - specifically the expensive pollution - makes sense. But let's not lose sight of the most cost effective strategy that government leaders apparently are not willing to support: prohibit industrial water pollution in the Great Lakes in the first place.

A Teachable Moment in Wisconsin

ERCO Worldwide's decision to eliminate discharges of that villainous pollutant mercury from its Port Edwards chlorine plant beside the Wisconsin River is much more than a landmark win for efforts to promote environmental cleanliness in the greater Great Lakes region of the United States.

The move also demonstrates the outstanding economic benefits that accrue to companies and communities that embrace and invest in a sustainable development strategy.

In fact, Grant Billings, the CEO of ERCO's parent company, says the $95 million investment to upgrade their Wisconsin facility, and end mercury pollution, will not only extend the profitable life of the plant by some 25 years. It will generate some $17 million in additional cash flow in the first year alone and provide investors with an average rate of return on investment that exceeds 15 percent.

That means big profits and less toxic fish to eat at the same time. And therein lies the real story that's gaining steam in America's upper Midwest. The cant-doers are becoming marginalized.

The conventional industrialists erode their credibility when they reflexively argue that minimizing pollution - and thereby accelerating the Rust Belt's transition to a cleaner, more prosperous, and healthy place to live and work -will cost too much money, force too many job cuts, and restrict economic growth.

Just look at the intense public fury that continues to swarm BP's plan to expand their facility and ramp up pollution into Lake Michigan.

ERCO reportedly is the largest source of mercury pollution in the state. And now they're going mercury-free. In doing so, the company further illuminates the idea that a sustainable development strategy that balances economic and environmental goals is the key to modern prosperity. Not the barrier.

"When our competitors are making the switch, pretty soon you are the only guy making horseshoes in the automotive industry," ERCO President Paul Timmons told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "You have to make changes if you want to compete."

Detroit's Whale of a Mistake

From the anything-for-money file: owners of the blighted Broderick Tower in downtown Detroit covered up the humpback whales mural painted on the side of the building by globally renowned artist - and Detroit native -Robert Wyland with an advertisement for Verizon Wireless.

So, instead of an interesting and unique piece of public art that engages people in the city, Detroiters now have a 16-stories-tall picture of the "can you hear me know" guy.

Some say whales don't belong in Detroit. But, like the Spirit of Detroit and the Joe Louis fist, Wylands' Whales were on the way to becoming a signature piece of the Motor City. Now they're just another casualty of the city's ongoing struggle to execute a future-oriented revitalization strategy.

Mass rapid transit. Diversity. Historic preservation. Collaboration. Public art. These are the basic elements of prosperous cities. Yet Detroit seems to reject them at every turn.

Rethinking a Road to Recovery

Hunter Morrison knows how to build a city. The guy's resume is flush with national planning awards, high profile urban consulting posts, and degrees from the world's top institutions of higher learning. In other words, when Hunter Morrison says something will make a city hum, he's most likely correct.

And that brings us to his latest venture: advocating to build a roof over a 10-block length of Interstate 90 through downtown Cleveland and cover it with houses, retail business, and park space. The Ohio Department of Transportation currently plans to execute a $1.5 billion reconstruction of the highway. And Morrison says 'capping' the roadway will help make the city a more prosperous place to live and work.

The idea is "a pathway to the knowledge economy" for the city's residents, Morrison recently told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, particularly for the poor and predominately black Central neighborhood.

He should know. Mr. Morrison was director of planning for the City of Cleveland for 20 years, during which time the city launched its modern day revival with a new master plan and major reinvestment projects such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Playhouse Square Theatre District. He has worked as a private consultant in Boston and New York.

The man has taught courses at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Cleveland State University's College of Urban Affairs. He has served as the director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at Youngstown State University and a senior fellow at the Urban Design Center of Northeast Ohio. And he holds a bachelors degree in city planning and political science from Yale, a masters in city planning from Harvard, and an executive masters in business from Cleveland State University.

And his call to cap I-90 is the kind of transformative thinking that could dramatically accelerate Cleveland's revival. Other American cities have dared to fundamentally rethink their major urban expressways and realized big paybacks. San Francisco, Portland, and New York - three of the nation's hottest urban hubs - all tore down highways to make way for new condos, businesses, and public spaces.

Great Lakes urban leaders have slowly begun thinking differently, too. Milwaukee deconstructed a half-mile section of the Park East Freeway at the turn of the 20th century to make way for urban reinvestment and redevelopment.

Toronto is debating a dramatic overhaul of the Gardiner Expressway to open up the lakefront for people and new economic opportunities.

Mid-sized cities like Grand Rapids, MI have 'toyed' with the idea of turning a major elevated expressway into a sleek at-grade boulevard to reconnect historic neighborhoods to the Grand River waterfront.

Even lil ole Traverse City, MI, population about 15,000, has tossed around the idea of burying the 4-lane parkway that separates the bayfront from downtown.

Though proven successful elsewhere, these kinds of ideas remain pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams in the Midwest, where entrenched thinking and conventional transportation planners argue such dramatic changes are not possible. But clearly that's not the case. Just ask the experts.

Ashes to Ashes, Rust to Rust

The Democrats squared off last night in the party's latest presidential campaign debate, this one sponsored by the AFL-CIO. But just before the curtains went up, and the cameras went live, MSNBC political correspondent Chris Matthews appeared on TV and, in response to a question about free trade, presented a disturbingly realistic assessment on the state of America's heartland. It's an analysis that national politicians, for the most part, continue to ignore. Even as they stood on a stage in Solidier Field, in the City of Chicago, on the shores of the Great Lakes, not one candidate offered a comprehensive strategy to see the American Midwest get its groove back. Meanwhile, voters in crucial swing states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wiscosin hunger for leadership.

Here's an excerpt of Matthews remarks on the Tucker Carlson show:

CARLSON: So do you—I think what you‘re saying is [union workers] vote with their minds as well as their hearts. They are not going to award an endorsement to a guy simply because he has been with them. They want to back someone who has a shot of winning.

MATTHEWS: They want a president. It‘s simple as that. They do not want just a nominee, even. They want a president of the United States who will do labor‘s bidding, give them check card neutrality, toughen up on trade issues, get the minimum wage, give them all the issues they care about. They want it now. They have been out in the cold for too long, these guys. As it‘s been pointed out on your program for the last few minutes, labor is getting smaller. It is not getting better. They need help.

CARLSON: The trade issue is just a fascinating one to me. Bill Clinton, of course, the face of free trade and NAFTA. How is Mrs. Clinton going to navigate?

MATTHEWS: It is absolutely ironic, you‘re right. Because it was not a Republican who delivered NAFTA. It was a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, in 1993 and 1994. He came through and created free-trade as a regime for American economics. It has worked for a lot of people. But, as I have said so many times, the de-industrialization of America continues year after year.

The big auto companies are in trouble. All the factory towns are dying. There are so many towns across the Rust Belt, from Buffalo out to Chicago—Go through those small towns. Nothing is left but a Blockbuster movie place and a diner. Everything else is rust. It is all across the northeast and through the Midwest. I do not know what Hillary Clinton is going to do about this. She says she‘s going to re-industrialize America.

Well, that will be the day. That‘s why you have to wonder why labor does not put up its big strong muscle and say, damn it, we want our factory jobs back. Give us the policies that will do it, and ask the Democrats to put up or shut up.

CARLSON: What does that mean? I have heard that phrase a couple of times today, re-industrialize America. Is that the idea that we are going to start making big heavy metal things again?

MATTHEWS: It means that when you graduate from high school, you can get a job at a plant, like the old Bud plant in Philadelphia, where they build big things like subway cars, or trains, or whatever. Something big you‘re right, something big that requires muscle and big industry. We do not do that anymore in this country. We don‘t even have cigar plants anymore.

CARLSON: I wish we did do that. I am sad that we do not do that. But the idea that we are going to do that any time soon is ridiculous. Isn‘t it?

MATTHEWS: It is under current policy, and it certainly is given world competition. The advantage we have in free trade is you and I can go to a store, and we can choose clothes from everywhere in the world, incredibly attractive clothing, khakis, shirts, socks, everything. You can pick out exactly what you want, the size you want and walk out of the store with it already fitted. That‘s because of free trade.

But the cost is down in North Carolina and South Carolina, those textile industries are not in good shape. That‘s the difference. Some people are winning; some people are losing. The winners have more clout than the losers. That‘s why we‘re having free trade as a regime in this country. Isn‘t that the case?

Will the Fix Be In

The 2008 Republican National Convention will begin September 1, 2008 in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The question is whether the candidates vying to become the next President of the United States will take on the big idea recently illuminated by the collapse of that community's Interstate 35W bridge into the Mississippi River: the physical foundation of greater Great Lakes society - if not the nation - appears to be falling apart.

The bridge collapse in Minneapolis is not an isolated incident. It's yet another sign of an ongoing pattern of failure to maintain the basic physical structures on which Americans increasingly depend. Consider what's happened around the Great Lakes recently:

A power outage in Buffalo reveals overstressed power lines.

A water main explodes in Detroit, MI and shuts down a highway.

Jails and court buildings deemed unsafe in suburban Milwaukee.

A water main explodes in Grand Haven, MI and snarls traffic during the annual Coast Guard Festival.

Aging electricity and natural gas lines in Cleveland.

A water main explodes in Chicago, IL and prevents auto travelers from entering O'Hare, a major international airport.

A leaking landfill in Muskego, WI

Good thing the greater Great Lakes region has barely seen a spit of rain this summer or we could tick off a long list of beach closings due to sewer failures.

Heck, even the "new stuff" is showing its age, like the public art statue on the Muskegon, MI waterfront pictured above.

Admittedly, the topic of infrastructure is about as exciting as a root canal. But, as Minneapolis reminds us, human life depends on it. So does a strong economy and a clean environment. Well-maintained roads, dams, electric grids, sewer and water lines, and other public works play an increasingly important role in America's civic stature.

Yet, amidst ballooning government deficits and a wildly expensive war, the nation lacks a basic plan and funding to maintain and enhance its physical structures. And the current president, a Republican, is vetoing good bipartisan ideas to reverse the trend. Disinvestment has become the norm.

Leadership requires more than a flyover after the levees break or a tour of the rubble as rescue workers drag cars out of the river. What's needed is a serious and long-lasting strategy to ramp up investment in the nation's aging infrastructure. 'The Big Fix' must no longer be ignored.

Bush Readies Great Lakes Veto

In a striking setback for the twin goals of boosting the competitiveness of America's Rust Belt economy and strengthening protections for the nation's Great Lakes, Bush Administration officials just announced the president will veto a proposal that would invest tens of millions of federal dollars to, among other things, modernize the mega region's crumbling sewer systems, cleanup decades of industrial pollution, and accelerate waterfront revitalization efforts in moribound cities such as Detroit.

This morning, Great Lakes proponents celebrated what looked like a major milestone victory: bipartisan aggreement in both the U.S. House and Senate on reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act, the federal government's principal water planning and investment strategy.

But that was before the Bush Administration said the $21 billion plan is too expensive. This afternoon the mood is taking a turn. The bill includes an unprecedented $5.5 billion in federal funding for ecological restoration projects in coastal Louisiana, the Everglades, and the Great Lakes, according to the National Audubon Society.

Those projects also would employ hundreds of workers, from engineers to ditch diggers. Highlighting the economic significance of the legislation - and the looming veto - the Dow Jones and NASDAQ news wires were among the first to broadcast the story.

"We are deeply disappointed with the President’s intention to veto this important restoration bill," said Tony Iallonardo, communications director at Audubon. "Funding for these projects is vital and long overdue. We urge the President to reconsider. In the event of a veto, we urge a Congressional override to bring five years of hard fought deliberations to a successful conclusion."

Here's a copy of the letter the administration sent earlier today to Wisconsin Representative James Oberstar, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure: