All Roads No Transit Makes Detroit a Dull Boy

For one indication why metro Detroit remains one of the largest urban areas in America without modern mass transit and, not coincidentally, an economic basket case at the start of the 21st century, check out the "high profile/high budget" transportation projects Detroit News Commuting Correspondent Tom Greenwood highlights in yesterday's column:

  • A $7.6 million widening of Cass from two to five lanes from the Clinton River Bridge to 19 ½ Mile.

A $6.3 million widening of Romeo Plank to five lanes.

A $2.7 million widening of 23 Mile to five lanes.

A $2.5 million widening of Cass to five lanes from Groesbeck to the Clinton River Bridge.

Not a single project aimed at expanding public transit or other alternatives to the automobile, and this at a time as gas shoots past $3 a gallon and prime time cities like Denver, Toronto, and Portland invest billions in new light rail trains and urban streetcar infrastructure to enhance quality of life, attract knowledge workers, and safeguard the environment.

Ironically, a story on the preceeding page of today's newspaper reveals the state's road budget faces $300 million in spending cuts in 2008.

So, putting the pieces together, Detroit and the State of Michigan is spending tens of millions of dollars to expand a short-sighted transportation strategy that is increasingly unaffordable, out of touch with a strategic development strategy, and ultimately unsustainable.

"We need $320 million more a year," to keep 90 percent of the roads in good condition, state transportation director Kirk Steudle told the Detroit News. "Where that is going to come from, I don't know."

So we'll just keep widening the roads and adding more surfaces to repair.

In an Unlikely Place, Talk of Rethinking Roads

Little old East Grand Rapids, a predominately white, wealthy, and Republican suburb of Grand Rapids, MI with a population under 11,000, is the latest Great Lakes community to consider the radical idea of relocating a roadway to open up a waterfront so more people can use it.

With the region in the midst of a full blow waterfront revolution, a time when countless communities are discovering that steel mills, highways, and cement plants are perhaps not the highest and best use of increasingly valuable shoreline and riverbank property, East Grand Rapids joins the likes of Cleveland, Toronto, Traverse City, and Grand Rapids who have dared to speak the idea of reconfiguring a man made roadway to better leverage their waterfront assets.

It remains to be seen whether the city's residents have the courage to dramatically rethink the roadway that squeezes Reeds Lake, fire up the bulldozers, and join the ranks of San Francisco, New York, and Portland - all of whom have deconstructed highways to improve quality of life.

Gobble Gobble

Jumping outta the matrix for the holiday. See y'all next week.

Reversing the Run and Hide Water Policy

A national water commission? Michigan and the Great Lakes should be afraid, according to an editorial in yesterday's Grand Rapids Press.

Or we could choose to be bold, confident, and fearless, like the good old days when the citizens of America's heartland launched the Industrial Revolution, propelled national prosperity, and changed the world.

Because a federally sponsored water task force is just the sort of forum the people of the Great Lakes need to forge a new discussion about water policy, and make the case that the region is uniquely positioned to help solve the nation's water challenge with new technologies and management techniques as opposed to naively throwing more water at the problem.

Regional leaders could even call for a federally funded public works project to underwrite a massive investment in the research, development, design, and manufacture of new ideas and products to boost water stewardship and conservation. Just so happens there's a proposed $20 billion Great Lakes restoration strategy that could get the work started now languishing in Congress.

Looking at the issue this way, Midwest residents and leaders should actively support the proposed commission. Not run from it.

We should embrace it and own it.

But the Press article illustrates how the people of the Great Lakes start from a position of weakness when it comes to the water management discussion. Not a strategic position of strength and cunning.

"Any talk of a national water policy raises the specter of Southwestern cities and Southeastern peanut farmers looking to somehow stick a straw in the Great Lakes," the Press states. "The Southeast and Southwest are in the grip of droughts that show no sign of relenting, and could grow worse if scientists are even half right about the expected effects of global climate change."

In all too familiar fashion, the editorial then goes on to rehash the standard Great Lakes statistics about containing 20 percent of the world's fresh water and 90 percent of the nation's supply.

It says nothing of the region's unmatched researched universities, incredible heritage of innovation and problem-solving, or the multi-billion dollar global water tech market now emerging in the knowledge economy.

Complete with Resistance, Detroit's Latest Transit Plan

Expecting an influx of 60 million new passengers in the next 20 years, leaders at Detroit Metropolitan Airport are finalizing a plan to expand terminals, add a new runway, and construct a potentially $1 billion monorail system that links commuters to car rental lots and - perhaps eventually - a light rail system that conveniently whisks riders off to downtown Detroit or Ann Arbor.

Put simply, the airport authority apparently is anticipating the trends and planning a 21st century transportation hub in a region and state that historically has rejected public transit.

But, in the process, they've also flushed out the latest opponent to new ways of funding modern mass transit in Michigan. Ironically, it's Northwest Airlines from Minnesota! The carrier opposes a special passenger fee to fund the improvements.

“The big deal to us is to add a tax to pay for a train to nowhere,” Andrea Fischer Newman, Northwest’s senior vice president for government affairs, recently told Crain's Detroit Business. “There’s no need for it because all the rental car companies use buses.”

There's alternative ways to pay for this thing. But the idea that a transportation company is fighting the expansion of a hyper-connected, multi-modal transportation network is puzzling.

Most major airports have some sort of tram that move people around from terminal to terminal. Detroit Metro has the beginning of something similiar, as pictured above.

The really smart cities - San Francisco, Portland, Washington D.C. to name a few - provide permanent rail as an easy option for folks to get from the air field to the downtown and other regional amenities.

Had Detroit made a similiar investment 20 years ago, there's strong indications that the population loss, unemployment, housing slump, and other troubling trends would be much less acute today. And Northwest, by extension, likely would be shuffling even more planes and passengers outta southeast Michigan.

Life After Concrete

Seventy five percent of Americans favor expanding public transit, and building communities that stimulate walking, biking, and other alternatives to the automobile, rather than perpetually expanding roads to solve traffic congestion, according to a new report prepared jointly by the National Association of Realtors and Smart Growth America.

But that isn't stopping the entrenched bureaucrats from pushing ahead with super costly new road and highway projects at the expense of the mass transit project a growing majority of citizens say is necessary.

The Indiana Department of Transporation is pouring buckets of money to plan for construction of the I69 highway.

The Michigan Department of Transporation is slowly implementing a $400 million plus plan to expand the I196 highway through downtown Grand Rapids.

And Wisconsin is debating the most expensive highway expansion in state history.

"You have a couple billion dollars now going into freeway expansion at a time when we're also trying to figure out ways to reduce auto travel because of the use and cost of oil and the impacts on our climate," Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel yesterday.

"We have to take a deep breath and figure out how we're going to build a multimodal system, instead of just pouring concrete."

Mr. Hiniker's comments, like the recent realtors report cited above, illustrate how public sentiment has steadily and quietly jumped way ahead of government planning and spending when it comes to transportation.

What's at stake for central cities, states, and the nation in the 21st century is economic competitiveness, ecological sustainability, social wellbeing, and homeland security.

Energy Futurists or Fakers

With oil prices, opposition to war in the petro-rich Middle East, concerns about climate change, and the value of renewable energy stocks all rising, ten governors from the Midwestern U.S. joined today to sign an agreement designed to promote energy innovation and conservation.

The agreement calls for new limitations on greenhouse gas emissions, modest reductions in energy consumption, and more grass stations. It also sets the goal of meeting 30 percent of the region's electricity needs with renewable sources by 2030, according to a report in today's Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune.

“Today’s agreement is an important milestone toward achieving a cleaner, more secure energy future,” Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said in a press release. “The Midwest is well-positioned to help lead the energy revolution that our nation needs to stay competitive and strong."

The immediate question is whether or not this pact will really be implemented. Because despite all the rhetoric about the potential to spur new jobs and high tech businesses with an aggresive renewable energy agenda, there are legitimate questions about just how committed Great Lakes leaders are to advancing serious energy innovation.

Ohio claims to be orienting its economic future around renewable energy. Yet Ohio Governor Strickland's energy plan appears poised to advance a rate structure that favors coal and nukes over wind and sun, according to a recent report from Tom Henry at the Toledo Blade.

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle proclaimed October Energy Awareness Month.

Then he signed on in support of an allegedly futuristic coal plant in Illinois, according to a recent report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

And energy companies are planning coal-fired power plants all across Michigan, without a peep from Governor Jennifer Grahnolm, who rightly claims the pursuit of alternative energies "can mean thousands and thousands of jobs for Michigan citizens."

The energy pact signed today by the Midwestern governors represents an important step forward for the region's 21st century development strategy. The real challenge - especially for a region so heavily dependent on Old Economy energy - is to put the thing into action.

Expanding Detroit's One-Trade Horizon

After a surprisingly short 20-minute speech from Bill Ford about all that Ford Motor Company is doing to achieve sustainability - designing hydrogen-powered cars that go 200 mph, dramatic reductions in water and energy use at factories, and building one of the world's largest green roofs on the Rouge River plant - Tom Partridge, a citizen from Washtenaw County, rose with a challenge for the great-grandson of one of human civilization's greatest innovators.

"I challenge you to take the automotive industry back to the future to develop public mass transportation in southeastern Michigan, throughout the state, the Midwest, the country, and the globe," the self-described progressive Democrat said. "I also challenge you to use your education and experience to reverse the trend of increasing unemployment in Michigan and the Midwest by acting as a catalyst for new businesses."

Dozens of cities big and small across America and around the world are studying, designing, building, or expanding public transit infrastructure. That's because, in the 21st century, a wave of interrelated economic, environmental, and social trends favor new alternatives to the automobile. The goal is not necessarily to replace the personal auto. But to provide a greater range of more affordable and convenient transportation options for people of all ages and ability.

The movement could also generate modern jobs and businesses for aspiring transportation leaders like the State of Michigan.

But while Ford Motor Company builds some hydrogen powered busses, for the most part, the auto companies have failed to recognize the opportunity the growing global interest in light rail, streetcars, and commuter trains presents the transportation industry and the communities that depend on them.

In his speech last night on the University of Michigan campus, and in his response to Tom Partridge, Bill Ford, Jr., the executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, acknowledged a new way of thinking about mobility is emerging. And he hinted that his company - motivated by the potential for new technologies, prestige, and profits - is starting to pay attention.

"You raise some very good points," Mr. Ford responded. "One of the fallacies is that car companies are some how against public transportation. In fact, one of the things we absolutely know as we look forward is that congestion is going to be as big an issue as pollution."

"We're challenging the idea of traditional car ownership [with a special study called the Mega Cities Project]," he continued. "The issue is how we get people from point A to point B using an array of things. Public transportation. Cars. Bicycles. Mopeds. Whatever it takes. It might take all of those in a single journey for some people, particularly in big cities where they can't get around."

"We want to be part of that evolution as it goes forward," Mr. Ford continued. "Not to be frightened by it. But to participate in it."

Teaching the World to Fish

Now that all the fear mongering over arid New Mexico coming for Great Lakes water is subsiding (once again), the timing is ripe in the Midwest for a more optimistic - and opportunistic - conversation about securing the world's increasingly valuable fresh water systems.

That conversation might begin with this undeniable fact: The world's water problem is a huge opportunity for the Great Lakes region. Not, at the moment, a threat, as the newspaper reports and press releases would have us believe.

As clean fresh water grows increasingly scarce and more expensive in places like California, Nevada, and Georgia, the robust supplies flowing through the greater Great Lakes region present an unmatched opportunity to secure existing industries, recruit new water-dependent businesses from drier regions, and promote long-term job retention and growth. That's elementary.

But the economy evermore is organized around knowledge and generating new ideas. So, instead of fretting about building wildly expensive pipelines and pumps to transport water across the countryside, the people of the greater Great Lakes can prosper by pioneering new water management strategies and services that help those with dwindling water resources boost the sustainability of their supplies. That's the 21st century approach.

Water tech’s potential is vast. Water quality and quantity are growing global problems and industry revenues already are estimated at $300 billion worldwide, according to a 2003 report prepared by the Battelle Memorial Institute, a scientific and technological consulting firm based in Columbus, Ohio.

Water supply and wastewater treatment, for example, is a $122 billion global market. The market for improved desalination of seawater, currently estimated at $2 billion annually, is projected to grow to $70 billion by 2020. Irrigation is already a $30 billion annual market, with demand for watersaving systems growing 10 percent each year.

With an entrepreneurial heritage, worldclass research universities, and the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world, the people of America's Great Lakes are uniquely positioned to compete successfully in these new ventures.

But environmental groups, politicians, and the mass media remain fixated on the thirsty westerners and foreigners coming to siphon off the Great Lakes. Not on a forward-looking policy and investment strategy to support the innovation, design, development, manufacture, and delivery of new equipment and management techniques to solve looming water scarcity problems.

As evidence, here's a sample of recent clips stemming from New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's comments about the plentiful Great Lakes. The stories pump the perception that the Great Lakes are under imminent attack from thirsty hoards, or that the region's water supply is on the verge of being drained away. They sell the fear of exporting Great Lakes water. Not the promising potential to export solutions to the world's water problems.

Hands Off Our Water

Can our Great Lakes water be stolen

Control the spigot while we can

Wisconsin Gov. Doyle Calls the Question on Great Lakes Restoration

He took the podium as one man. But Governor Jim Doyle spoke for millions of Midwest citizens, 78 electoral votes, and eight states - including key battlegrounds like Michigan, Ohio, and his home state of Wisconsin - when he called today on the presidential candidates to make restoration of America's Great Lakes a top campaign priority.

"We are at a crossroads," Gov. Doyle said in a letter to the presidential candidates. "The next Administration will have a key role in determining the fate of the Great Lakes."

"I ask whether you endorse the Great Lakes Restoration and Protection Strategy and, if so, to articulate your implementation plan," the governor continued.

With just under one year to go before the 2008 election, Gov. Doyle's call illustrates how hungry the people of the Great Lakes are for a reasoned agenda to reverse decades of economic, environmental, and civic decline. His remarks also gift wrap a highly strategic, no-brainer issue for the presidential contenders, several of whom - Clinton, Giuliani, and Obama - hail from the Great Lakes region.

The Great Lakes restoration plan could be an incredible economic, ecological, and social improvement tool for the nation's heartland. The program will not only begin to reverse a century of environmental abuse.

It will also generate tens of thousands immediate short term job opportunities; leverage private investment and accelerate urban revitalization; secure existing water-dependent industries and promote long-term job retention and growth; elevate quality of life and position the region to attract top talent; and spur technological innovation in the promising water sector.

Indeed, investing in the proposed $20 billion initiative - properly executed - without doubt will lead to far-reaching benefits that not only outweigh the cost of the cleanup program, but ultimately strengthen the Midwest and the nation as a whole.

"Protecting, preserving, and improving the Great Lakes is not just a Wisconsin issue or a Michigan issue, it must be a national priority,” said Gov. Doyle, who chairs the Council of Great Lakes Governors.

Which ambitious candidate will be the first to answer the governor's call?

Wind Should Power Up, Not Power Down

It was like a higher power was taking a more active role in the strikingly slow movement to promote energy innovation in Michigan.

Just days after news reports that Consumers Energy planned to spend billions of dollars building and improving coal-fired electric plants in Michigan - instead of more aggressive investment in renewable energy sources - the National Weather Service on Monday, November 5 issued a wind advisory across much of the Great Lakes region.

Not long after that numerous homes in Michigan - including my own - lost power. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Wind should help keep the lights on, right? Not shut 'em down.

I know, I know: transmission lines from wind turbines snap in storms, too. But it was somewhat ironic to read in yesterday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the gusty winds actually supplemented - rather than diminished - the power grid in Wisconsin. The article goes on to report that one energy company there plans to spend $1 billion doubling its ability to generate wind power.

Meanwhile, the energy experts and politicians in Michigan seem content to power the future with coal and watch the wind blow by.

What's In A City

You know there's a dire need for education when you sponsor a workshop to devise an action plan for revitalizing central cities, invite 250 new economy leaders, and the conversation devolves to the point where someone actually says "What do we mean by urban?"

But that's exactly what happened yesterday at an event sponsored by Michigan Future, Inc, a nonprofit group working to set the Great Lakes State on a prosperous course for the 21st century.

Brains are the key commodity in the Information Age, according to a growing number of economists, corporate leaders, and social researchers. And to compete for the brains, the experts say, states and regions must provide vibrant cities with a rich entertainment scene, a clean environment, nonstop diversity, reasonable personal and municipal costs, walkable neighborhoods and transit, a high quality of life, and at least the perception of job opportunities. An edgy, creative, entrepreneurial, optimistic attitude doesn't hurt.

The increasingly urgent dilemma for Michigan is that these kind of places barely exist within the state's borders. Sure there is a band of optimists who argue that the state and region does offer these types of amenities, and that we just need to market them. To some extent, there's truth in that thinking. There are pockets in Detroit, places in Ann Arbor, and districts in Grand Rapids with an aspiring urban character and lifestyle. Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Buffalo have their spots too.

But there are disturbingly few places in Michigan and across the greater Great Lakes region where people who know and long for that urban vibe can taste anything like North Beach in San Francisco, the boroughs of NYC, or Den Den Town, the tech center of Osaka, Japan. The region, at this point, just doesn't offer an urban experience of that scale, and the research says that reality threatens to stifle competitiveness.

What's more, as yesterday's meeting revealed, people seem to be struggling simply to define how a real city even looks, feels, and functions. And if that's how far Michigan needs to back up to move forward on a modern development strategy, the state's turnaround is a frighteningly long way off.

"We need a better sense of what it is we're talking about," Brian Boyle, a founding partner in the Detroit-based communications firm Issue Media Group, urged the group at yesterday's gathering. "I'm not convinced people [in Michigan] understand what it's like to live in places like Portland, OR or Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. There's a reason why young people are moving to these places. And there's a reason why people are paying $2,000 a month to live in a closet in New York City. We need to understand why that is, what these places look like, and how we do it."