Finally, Michigan Gets A New Start

Clearing the way for the design, engineering, and eventual construction of the most advanced public transportation system yet in Michigan, the Federal Transit Administration approved greater Grand Rapids' application to build a highly sophisticated rapid bus line through one of its busiest urban corridors.

The decision, announced today by Congressman Vern Ehlers, ultimately could trigger more than $29 million in federal funding to build a nearly 10-mile bus rapid transit route and modernize the transportation infrastructure in Michigan's second largest city. It's also expected to expand mobility choices, leverage a new wave of private real estate investment, and boost quality of life in the central city.

But the implications of the approval likely will extend far beyond the Grand Rapids region. Michigan is the 8th largest state in the union. Yet the state has been unable to tap into the federal government's primary funding program for mass transit projects known as New Starts.

Dozens of cities across America are planning, building, or expanding bus, street car, light rail, and other public transportation projects. So competitition, in other words, is brisk for New Starts funding. What's more, the process favors states and communities that have successfully jumped through the program's hoops in the past. Michigan, the Auto State, isn't one of them.

Until now. Grand Rapids becomes the first Michigan city to secure New Starts approval, and that presents a powerful opportunity to accelerate transit projects across the state, including a proposed light rail project in Detroit. The next step for Grand Rapids and, more importantly, the State of Michigan, is to come up with the local dollars necessary to match and bring home the federal funds.

Peter Varga, CEO of the Rapid, the regional transit authority serving the Grand Rapids region, is confident state and local leaders will find the $7 million in the next couple years.

"We don't want to stop this," Mr. Varga said. "If you say 'no' to this, you're saying 'no' to everything in the future whether it's transit project in southeast Michigan, Traverse City, or wherever."

"Michigan has to move into the future and be able to attract new businesses, technology, and knowledge-based workers and that kind of recruitment and developmentall requires advanced transportation systems," Varga added. "What we've done is demonstrate that we can get a [major mass transit] project rated by the Federal Transit Administration and that we can fund it under the federal program. Other systems [in Michigan] can do the same."

"We'll be the first one, but I never envisioned we'll be the only one."

In other FTA news that affects the Great Lakes region's maturation in the 21st century, the agency announced on December 11, 2007 a $156 million commitment to the 40-mile commuter rail line project in Minnesota. The funds cover approximately half the total construction costs.

"After a difficult year, there’s a new star rising on Minneapolis’s transportation horizon and it’s lighting a path to faster trips to the office, to the ball game, and back home," said the US Deputy Secretary of Transportation Thomas Barrett.

Racing to Lead the New Energy Economy

Yesterday morning civic leaders in West Michigan issued a report lamenting the lack of a popular research institution focused on energy innovation.

Later that afternoon, their like-minded peers in Cleveland announced a $3.6 million philanthropic donation to fund the launch of the Great Lakes Institute for Energy Innovation at Case Western Reserve University.

What we're seeing here is the quickening pace of competition to capture a significant share of the rapidly emerging alternative and renewable energy business, which is growing 30 percent annually and projected to approach a $170 billion market by 2015.

That means thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment are at stake for cities like Cleveland, Milwaukee, Buffalo, and Grand Rapids, all of which are fighting like dogs to survive the wrenching transition from the Industrial Era to the Digital Age.

What makes research labs so important? They're critical to 1) attract the top talent; 2) lure the companies that feed off the intellectual capital; and 3) ultimately support the innovation, incubation, development, manufacture, and commercialization of the new products and services that will shape arguably one of the most important industries of our time.

“The greatest challenges and opportunities for engineers and scientists of the 21st century likely will focus on the generation, transportation, utilization and storage of energy,” Norman Tien, dean of the Case School of Engineering, said in a press release announcing the $3.6 million gift from the Cleveland Foundation.

"With this startup funding, the Case School of Engineering is well-positioned to advance energy innovation in Ohio. We will be augmenting the engineering faculty with this funding by hiring mid-level, well-established players who will have an immediate impact on the school and on our energy initiatives."

Building, or Blowing, the Wind Business in Buffalo

Tom Kucharski, CEO of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, an economic development agency in western New York, says growing the wind energy business is a "medium" priority for his organization.

So you can count entrepreneurs and advocates for a 21st development strategy in Buffalo among the frustrated lot who fear the greater Great Lakes region is moving much too slowly in the pursuit of a modern economy.

Clean energy is one of the fast growing sectors in the American marketplace. The industry is expected to generate an estimated 850,000 new jobs and a national market value of $160 million in the next decade, according to report scheduled to be released tomorrow in Muskegon, Michigan.

How could seizing it be anything but a top priority?

Countless cities, states, and nations now aim for a piece of the lucrative action. There's international competition in this game. And Buffalo, like a number of Great Lakes cities, is uniquely positioned for success with the capable - and idle - workforce, the brownfields awaiting new industry, and the transportation connections to build a mighty high tech green power business with a global reach.

But the "edge only counts if we get in the race," rightly observes Buffal News Columnist Donn Esmonde. "So far, we are barely at the starting line.".

All They Want in Milwaukee is a Little Rail

Opponents said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and 10 city aldermen were "extremely shortsighted" this week when they called on state officials to downsize a $1.9 billion plan for widening the I-94 highway.

But, if you champion a 21st century economic development agenda, as opposed to blindly clinging onto the same old ideas that got us in this Rust Belt mess in the first place, then you know these courageous elected officials are truly visionary.

Because what they appear to be fighting for is a comprehensive transportation solution that, in the long run, will do more to stem traffic congestion, grow the local economy, strengthen both urban and suburban neighborhoods, and conserve energy in Milwaukee than a bigger highway could ever do.

Here, briefly, is the story. The state Department of Transportation is pushing a $1.9 billion plan to build out I-94 from 6 to 8 lanes over a 37-mile stretch of the freeway from Mitchell Airport, just south of the city, to the Illinois border. Proponents say the proposal is critical to move goods and people between the increasingly busy corridor that connects Milwaukee and Chicago.

But the City of Milwaukee, like dozens of other cities struggling to rebuild their competitiveness for the knowledge economy, has ambitious plans to expand mass transit, accelerate urban redevelopment, and elevate quality of life to retain and attract young talent and modern companies.

A critical component of the city's transit plan is a commuter rail line that links passengers to Milwaukee, Kenosha, Racine, northeastern Illinois, and Chicago. The proposed service would follow a similiar north-south alignment as the I-94 highway.

The freeway expansion plan, however, basically ignores mass transit. So, by a 10-4 vote, city leaders moved a resolution urging state transportation officials to consider "a more strategic approach to the WI DOT's funding of some of its major projects affecting Milwaukee."

Specifically, the city leaders called for "a collaborative approach and simultaneous funding of high-speed rail, light rail, and the expansion and reconstruction of I-94"

Mayor Tom Barrett said the approach was a fiscally responsible way to achieve a more balanced, comprehensive transportation system that gives people choices beyond the automobile.

But the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorialized that the leaders were mistaken, and inferred that voters should hold them accountable for such reckless governing.

A Heap of Hope for Energizing Michigan's Future

Cranking out renewable energy technologies to Michigan could be like spinach to Popeye, according to a trifecta of announcements this week from across the state.

What's becoming increasingly clear in the wake of those bulletins is that the longer Michigan's politicians take to enact a statewide policy to pursue energy innovation - as at least two dozens U.S. states have already done - the longer they choose to obstruct the state's ability to grow jobs, turnaround an embarrassing economy, and position for prosperity in the 21st century.

The week's first energy announcement comes from Detroit, where innovative solar technology is flying of the shelves at Energy Conversion Devices, which just inked an agreement with one of the nation's leading solar panel installers. Analysts called it a modest deal. But Forbes reported on the transaction. A rare and welcome sign of positive growth for a state seemingly synonomous with factory closings, real estate foreclosures, and bankruptcies in the national media.

ECD's stock, by the way, ended trading today up nearly 11 percent.

The story picks up more momentum 70 miles to the west in East Lansing where Michigan State University, one of the state's leading research institutions, released a report touting the economic benefits that could accrue to the Great Lakes State given an agressive strategy to promote the wind business.

The report reveals that a plan to strategically deploy new wind energy generating infrastructure in the state would, among other things, stimulate approximately $20 billion in new construction investment and establish more than 25,000 jobs - some temporary, some permanent - over the next two decades.

On to Grand Rapids, finally, where one of the region's leading economic development agencies is gearing up to release a report next week that says a basic strategy to grow the alternative energy industry could generate 4,300 new jobs and leverage approximately $1.2 billion in new investment in five short years.

“Supporting the development of Michigan’s alternative energy sector is a critical strategy for securing the economic health of the state,” said Jim Croce, CEO of the Detroit-based NextEnergy.

Would You Like Ice With That Water

You should never extrapolate about global warming from your own weather, New York Times Columnist Tom Friedman wrote last week, but it is becoming hard not to.

Indeed, the freezing trends on Grand Traverse Bay are just one indication of climate change in the Great Lakes region, according to James Nugent, a horticulturalist with Michigan State University.

The graph at the left of this post was generated at least a couple of years. But, according to a web search, it received little media attention at the time. And, since a friend recently brought it to my attention, I thought it made a worthwhile and timely post today as Al Gore accepted the Nobel Prize for his work on the climate issue.

Basically, what the graph says is that Grand Traverse Bay, a beautiful expanse of freshwater in Northwest Michigan, froze anywhere from seven to 10 times a decade from 1851 - when they started keeping records - until about 1980.

Then things started to change. The bay froze six times from 1981 to 1990. It froze just three times from 1991 to 2000. And it has frozen only once since 2001.

"This shows a rapid decline in the frequency of bay freezing during the most recent 25 year period," Mr. Nugent once wrote in a paper, concluding that "significant warming has occured in the Grand Traverse Bay region during the winter months."

The likely long-term results of the trend are major disruptions in the nature of the waterway, some of which may already be visible. There's strong indication that lower lake levels, for instance, are a symptom of the warming trend as lack of ice cover enables year around evaportation.

I always thought of lake levels as nervous news. They go up. And they go down. It's the nature of the hydrologic cycle that's run on for millenia regardless of human things like lakefront hotels, cottages, and boat docks. But it's increasingly difficult to ignore the idea that the very nature of the Earth's weather system is changing, not just on the coral reefs off the Florida coast or some polar bear tundra in the North Pole, but right in our own backyard.

To pull the thread back to the theme of this blog, the question is whether our region is ready and willing to anticipate the trends and respond with the sort of urgency, innovation, and collaboration that this incredible challenge demands.

Disrupting the Great Lakes Narrative

When I was in Arizona last February, reporting on the new interurban light rail line then under construction in Phoenix, I was struck by the sense of confidence and optimism that radiated from the officials I interviewed, the bartender or hotel keep I chatted with and, especially, the newspapers I read.

I'm wondering how we regain and deploy that anything-is-possible spirit across Great Lakes culture today.

One particular above-the-fold front page story in the Arizona Star, about a major charitable donation to fund biotech research, caught my attention at the time because it illustrated the tendency of people to see and explain the favorable side of the events that I was picking up on during my travels in that dry, hot, and seemingly temporary place.

"Arizona's biosciences will receive a $100 million donation today that officials predict will spur medical and scientific breakthroughs, create higher-paying jobs, attract new companies and position the state as a high-tech leader," Reporter Eric Swedlund wrote in his Feb. 26, 2006 report.

"This can be a kickstart to change the entire dynamic of the state," one source said. "This is knowledge-based economy at its finest."

Contrast that with the Midwest attitude and awareness. The media barely even blinked today when Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's announced that his state would invest $70 million to fund the scientific advancement of supercomputing at the local Argonne National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy's high tech research center.

According to the governor's press release, the investment would enable "Illinois scientists to apply breakthroughs in supercomputing and pursue advances in nanotechnology, climate change, protein modeling and more, solidifying the fastest growing research program in Argonne’s history." It's a strategic move in the era of knowledge and creativity.

So what did the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times' online edition lead with? News of a snow storm. The statewide section? News of a boy mulled by a pit bull and a bus crash in Indiana. Surely the business section would inform readers of this pioneering push into the digital age, right? Wrong. More news about the mortgage crisis, bankruptcies, and slowing growth in the service sector.

This is crazy, right. Certainly the Chicago Tribune would carry news of a public project that, as the governor put it, would "help scientists propel American leadership in technology and engineering for decades to come." Especially as the nation's young people fall behind in math and science skills and the greater Great Lakes region navigates this incredibly disruptive economic evolution from the Industrial Era to the Digital Age, no?.

Wrong again. The front page story at is more news about snow, a metra train running over a pedestrian and, in the business section, the shutdown of a potato chip plant.

In fact, search Yahoo News and it seems not one newspaper or television station in the state or region picked up the story.

OK. OK. We get it, you say. The media blew it. And $70 million is pocket change in the incredibly expensive world of supercomputing anyways. So what's your point?

The point is that the traditional news bureaus across the greater Great Lakes region seem to be so busy yelling about the demise of the old economy that, too often, they miss the important opportunities to help explain the rise of the new economy. The industry is fixated on loss.

That's a shame and, ultimately, a huge public disservice. Because the way forward in the 21st century requires innovation, entrepreneurialism, talent, and risk. It also demands vision, optimism, and hope. And until the region's mainstream information brokers start telling that story, as they appear to be doing out in the booming west, they'll remain a mechanism of the dying system rather than the voice of a brighter future.

In Great Lakes, Testing and Uncertainty on Renewables

The fourth most popular news item generated by the national news desk of the New York Times yesterday was a story about the potential to turn common algae into a commercially viable energy source. The story remains the 9th most frequently emailed as of this posting.

Guess where the report originates? Not at some high tech startup in Silicon Valley. Not in a fancy research center at MIT or the Department of Energy. But rather in Roger Ruan's laboratory at the University of Minnesota.

The story is the latest to illustrate how America, in many ways, is looking to the greater Great Lakes region - with its long history of research, innovation, and hard work - for leadership to advance the nation's renewable energy strategy and help solve the converging problems of oil dependency, climate change, and technological stagnation.

So, too, does the news now sweeping the country that Congress has reached agreement on a policy requiring automakers to pursue modest increases fuel efficiency standards.

Or, as the Detroit Free Press put it, "the deal negotiated will force (emphasis added) U.S. automakers to make a 40 percent improvement in their vehicles' mileage to 35 miles per gallon by 2020."

And therein lies a major challenge. America more and more is pushing to enlist the ingenuity of Heartland states like Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in the energy innovation campaign. But the question is whether the region's traditional and entrenched leadership from business, politics, and the media is really truly ready and willing to fully heed the call and step up to the challenge.

Or must they be "forced" into meaningul action? Despite the mounting number of stories that reveal an inspiring - and profitable - 21st century change in thinking about wind turbines, mpg's, or even algae, there always seems to be something that brings the whole conversation crashing back down into the comfort zone of 20th-century-style-business-as-usual.

As evidence, check out yesterday's editorial in the Detroit News, which argues new coal plants are key to Michigan's future.

The Buffalo News, by sharp contrast, editorializes that a new clean energy economy is emerging, with the potential to generate tens of thousands of jobs in the State of New York.