Michigan Department of Transportation

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Amtrak riders in Grand Rapids will notice a huge difference the next time they board a train. A new $6 million station opened today.

Grand Rapids' old Amtrak station was tiny, dingy and outdated.

Tim Hefner, director of Michigan Department of Transportation’s office of rail, says the old station was supposed to be a temporary one when it was built almost 30 years ago.

At the ribbon cutting ceremony Monday, state and local officials cracked jokes about the old “Am-shack."

By now coverage of last week’s Detroit area flooding has receded. For now, many of us have temporarily forgotten about how bad the potholes were last winter. We are trying, after all, to enjoy the last few days of summer.

However, roads, unlike little boys with scraped knees, don’t heal themselves.

When I was a kid I remember being told that the best thing you could do for a scraped knee was to spit on it.

This is actually not true. Most people know this by now, especially if you’ve ever taken a personal hygiene class. There are a lot more dangerous myths out there, however.

One of which is that we can’t afford to fix our infrastructure.

The fact is that in sheer dollars-and-cents terms we can’t afford not to. This weekend I talked to Jeff Cranson, the head of communications for MDOT, the Michigan Department of Transportation.

I asked him to help me get some hard, cold numbers about the cost of both repairing the roads and also the costs of not doing so.

MDOT

Monday’s floods may have caused serious damage to Michigan’s busiest highway interchange.

Diane Cross is a Michigan Department of Transportation spokeswoman. She says there are concerns about safety of the I-75 road surface at I-696.

“It looks like the road is fine,” says Cross, “but you can see where the substructure has already eroded away. We’re not sure it can hold any weight.”

Cross says it may take a few days to return the interchange to service, but it could be a week or longer, depending on the extent of the damage.

Lex Dodson / via Instagram

Late yesterday afternoon, it started raining hard over much of southeast Michigan.

When it finally let up over 3 hours later, a record-breaking 4.57 inches of rain had fallen at Detroit Metro Airport. Some spots got even more.

According to WDIV meteorologist Paul Gross, it was “one of the heaviest single rainfall totals in Detroit weather history.”

The National Weather Service had anticipated heavy afternoon showers, and warned of possible flooding in some areas.

Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

As state lawmakers look to boost investment in Michigan's roads, transit advocates are calling on Lansing not to forget the state’s public transportation systems.

House Speaker Jase Bolger has proposed legislation that would reconfigure gas taxes and add other measures to raise about $450 million a year for road repairs. On Tuesday, Senate Majority leader Randy Richardville said he wants to triple that amount to about $1.5 billion.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

County road commissioners meeting in Lansing today heard from a Pennsylvania transportation official on how Michigan can spend more money on its crumbling roads.

Bradley Mallory is the executive deputy secretary of Pennsylvania’s transportation department.

His state recently passed a $2.3 billion road spending plan. The plan includes a higher gas tax and other fees.

Mallory says like Michigan, Pennsylvania lawmakers know they have to do something to fix their roads.

There are more than 70 virtual currencies in the marketplace.

You may have heard of the biggest players: Bitcoin, Ripples, and Litecoin, which are taking out the middleman and reinventing the meaning of money. The idea is gaining momentum among college students. Today, we heard how virtual money is opening doors for young Michigan entrepreneurs.

Then, school districts around the nation and right here in Michigan are talking about ways to accommodate transgender students. The ACLU of Michigan's LGBT Project (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) is already working on model policies.

And we spoke with some talented Michigan musicians about how their EP (extended play recording) reached No. 2 on the iTunes electronic charts with virtually no promotion.

Peter Ito / flickr

As the winter of 2013-2014 drags on, we're really seeing what it's done to our roads.

Patching crews try in vain to keep up with a bumper crop of potholes. More and more of us are losing tires, blowing the suspension as we bang into one of those gaping potholes.

And keep in mind, Michigan's roads were crumbling before this winter.

With more winter to go, we wondered where our roads stand and what needs to happen in Lansing to do what it takes to repair and maintain the roads.

Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle knows all too well what this winter has done to the pavement, and he joined us today. 

Listen to the full interview above.

net_efekt / Flickr

Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, says the harsh winter will make the pothole situation in Michigan this spring the worst we’ve seen in our lifetime. He testified this week before the state House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation.

Joining us to talk roads are Susan Demas, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, and Ken Sikkema, former Senate Majority Leader and Senior Policy Fellow at Public Sector Consultants.

More money for Michigan transportation projects?
user theed17 / wikimedia commons

The Michigan Department of Transportation is asking businesses whether they’re interested in partnering with the state for certain projects. That could include taking over the building, operating, or financing of infrastructure projects from the state.

Joe Pavona is Governor Rick Snyder’s special advisor on public-private partnerships.

“I think that this is the direction of the future, and I think is consistent with providing improved customer service and value for Michigan,” he says.

Lawmakers in Lansing are debating how to boost transportation spending by more than a billion dollars a year. Pavona says including private businesses in transportation projects could save the state money and time.

But Michigan’s largest state employees union doesn’t like the idea. Ray Holman is with UAW Local 6000.

“You’re talking about services and responsibilities that are vital. And you’re talking about issues of safety, of course. And we believe that certain things are best handled by the state workforce,” he says.

Right now, MDOT is exploring public-private partnerships involving bridge work, freeway lighting, and two rest areas in Northern Michigan.

It says it’s too early to say whether the partnerships would shift public sector jobs to the private sector.

User: Brother O'Mara / Flickr

Medicaid vote delayed

Governor Rick Snyder called out Republican state Senators for taking their summer recess before voting on Medicaid expansion.  He is requesting that lawmakers return to vote on the legislation.  Michigan Radio’s Jake Neher quotes Governor Snyder as saying “Please come do your job.  Please come take a vote.  Please come vote ‘yes.’”

School budget bill in Governor's hands

Bills allowing the state to dissolve debt-ridden school districts heads to Governor Snyder’s desk today.  They were approved yesterday by the state House, with votes following party lines.  Rick Pluta reports that this may enable the state to quickly shut down the Buena Vista and Inkster school districts. 

Bridges in need of repair

1300 bridges in Michigan have been judged unsafe in a new study from Transportation for America.  Jeff Cranson with the Michigan Department of Transportation believes that Governor Snyder’s 1.2 billion-dollar road investment bill will help fix the problem.

If you’ve driven on any Metro Detroit’s major highways recently, you may have spent some time in the dark.

That’s because the region’s highways have been plagued by some recurring power outages.

The outages have hit most major highways in and around the city, especially portions of I-94 and I-96.

In some cases, whole stretches of highway have repeatedly gone completely dark.

Michigan Department of Transportation spokesman Rob Morosi said MDOT has removed some streetlights because they were old and unsound, and lost others to accidents.

But Morosi says the bigger issue is thieves who target transformer cabinets beside the highways, particularly for their copper wire--which can be sold for scrap.

“And we’re seeing an increase in copper theft in and around the metro Detroit area, and most of these lighting outages can be attributed to that theft,” Morosi said.

Morosi says MDOT is trying to fix the problems, but funding is tight and repairs are expensive.

“At this point in time, funding is an issue for this department,” Morosi said. “Infrastructure investment is obviously something we’re keeping a close eye on, and we’re hoping something can be done in Lansing.”

MDOT officials also hope proposed legislation to crack down on scrapyards will help out.

Morosi says it’s difficult to put a price tag on fixing the problem because “it’s such a moving target.”

Nearly all major freeways have been affected, and Morosi estimates as many as 20 percent of the freeway lights around Metro Detroit aren’t working for one reason or another.

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

State agencies are helping several homeless folks find a place to live, or temporary shelter, following the closing of a tent city in Ann Arbor.

The Michigan Department of Transportation, or MDOT, released a video on Monday that explains the reason behind the camp closure.

“This is just not something the department can allow for a lot of different reasons,” said Mark Sweeney with MDOT. “Safety - because of the proximity to the freeway, sanitation - because there is no running water…so quite simply, it’s a liability for the state,” he said.

The video also highlights the problem of homeless. State agencies were called on to help relocate some residents. Camp Take Notice organizers said the camp served a purpose and helped people get back on their feet.

Here's MDOT's take on Camp Take Notice:

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

State officials are preparing to cordon off a stretch of highway median near Ann Arbor to keep the homeless out.

As AnnArbor.com's Ryan Stanton reports, the site is home to Camp Take Notice, a homeless community encampment that is scheduled to be shut down tomorrow. To make sure it remains unoccupied, the Michigan Department of Transportation, which owns the land, is erecting an 8-foot fence around the 9-acre site.

MDOT and the state housing authority, Stanton says, are working to provide camp residents with rent assistance and, in some cases, help moving into subsidized housing, but authorities have made it clear that residing at the campsite is no longer an option.

From AnnArbor.com:

"We've been hearing from the community and from Camp Take Notice that the homeless have been using this area for a long time as a makeshift home," [an MDOT regional manager, Mark] Sweeney said, adding there have been complaints from nearby residents that the homeless have left the area a mess.

"We really wanted to resolve the issue once and for all," he said. "So after the camp is closed, we'll be closing off the area."

Sweeney added, "It's not against Camp Take Notice specifically, but more to prevent a homeless encampment of any kind in this location."

Earlier this year, Michigan Radio's Mercedes Mejia visited Camp Take Notice and spoke with residents about life there. You can see a video of those conversations below:

-John Klein Wilson, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

About 70 people took part in a rally to show support for a tent city near Ann Arbor.

It's called "Camp Take Notice," and it's been on state-owned land for more than two years. The 65 people who live there are worried their days there are numbered.

David Williams has been staying at the camp for a year. "If we lose this camp it would be difficult for me to find another safe environment to live. And I hope that people understand that. Anyone can be homeless. Homelessness is not prejudice," he said.

Organizers want a commitment from the state to allow people to continue living at the site. But one neighbor, who asked not to be named, said he'd like to see the camp gone.

"There have been reports of stolen property down there. You don't necessarily feel comfortable being outside or outside alone towards the evening. And like I said, they are not bad people, that's not the problem. It's the element that goes along with it," the neighbor said.

Jeff Cranson, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation said the state has been working with the camp's organizers for a couple of years. He said there are no immediate eviction plans, but that the tent city is not safe and residents will need to relocate. Cranson said a fire broke out a few months ago and emergency crews had difficultly getting water to the site. 

He said another state agency is working to find alternative housing for the camp's residents.

Michigan Radio visited the camp in the fall of 2011.

MDOT

As part of the work on the "Gateway Project," the Michigan Department of Transportation opened an access road that will move truck traffic coming from Canada over the Ambassador Bridge directly on to nearby highways.

Prior to the road opening, trucks had to drive on secondary streets in southwest Detroit to get to the highways.

The Detroit Free Press reports the road opened yesterday, and a ceremony for the opening is planned for today.

The Detroit News reports the opening comes 5 days ahead of schedule, but because of the legal battles around the Gateway Project, the road opening is really years behind schedule.

In actuality, the opening of the access road comes about four years behind schedule because of protracted legal battles between MDOT and the Detroit International Bridge Co. over the $230 million Gateway Project.

When completely finished, the project will remove up to 10,000 trucks a day from secondary streets in southwest Detroit and move them directly to and from the Ambassador Bridge plaza to nearby freeways.

The project was supposed to be a partnership between MDOT and the Detroit International Bridge Company, but a judge found the DIBC to be in civil contempt of court after the company didn't follow the judge's orders to complete the project.

On March 8, the judge ordered the DIBC to cede control of its portion of the project and ordered MDOT to complete the remaining work.

MDOT says 95 percent of the new truck route is completed, and about 20 percent of the overall project is completed. When will it be finished? MDOT says their goal is to be done with the project "within a year and hopefully much sooner."

Here's MDOT's take on the overall project:

Jim Wallace / flickr.com

The Detroit International Bridge Company is challenging a court ruling that removes its control over a key construction project.

Earlier this month, a judge ordered the Michigan Department of Transportation to completely take over the Gateway Project.

The project is intended to better connect the Ambassador Bridge and nearby highways.

user amtrak_russ / Flickr

Maximum train speeds on Amtrak's Wolverine and Blue Water lines can increase to 110 m.p.h. on an 80 mile stretch of track between Kalamazoo and Porter, Indiana.

Amtrak and MDOT officials say the higher speed is the fastest allowed outside the Northeast Corridor.

Amtrak's Acela Express train, which travels between Boston and Washington D.C., can reach speeds up to 150 m.p.h.

Approval was given after successful testing of a "positive train control safety system" installed on the tracks.

From an Amtrak and MDOT press release:

(courtesy of Amtrak)

Today could be a significant day for the future of high speed rail in Michigan.    

Consultants have until today to submit their proposals to study how to solve a crucial problem for high speed rail between Detroit and Chicago.  

The problem: a railroad bottleneck between northwest Indiana and Chicago.     

A high volume of passenger and freight traffic already overwhelms the existing rail lines and threatens to put the brakes on high speed trains.   

(photo by Jason Roland) / fleetgod-snowice.blogspot.com

Michigan is getting its first significant snowfall of the year this evening. If you live in southwest Michigan, you may notice the snowplow in front of you is moving slower than you’re used to.  

When a snow plow is dumping salt on icy roads, state Transportation officials refer to it as "Bounce & Scatter".   

As the salt hits the road, faster truck speeds mean more salt tends to bounce and scatter, much of it landing off the road. 

MDOT spokesman Nick Schirripa says to reduce the scatter salt trucks in nine southwest counties will slow from 35 to 25 miles per hour this winter. The hope is slower speed will save money by using less salt.  

But Schirripa admits the slower speeds could put the trucks at greater risk of being rear-ended by inattentive motorists.   

“If we find out after a season, or a few weeks of it, the crash rate is simply too high, that safety is too much of a factor, the (pilot) program may in fact be dropped," says Schirripa.  

If the slower salt truck pilot program is successful, it may eventually expand to the rest of the state.

user ardee4 / Flickr

The director of the Michigan Department of Transportation said he’s already at work on Governor Rick Snyder’s proposals to fix and maintain the state’s bridges and roads.

Snyder’s plans include generating more than $1 billion in additional revenue each year for road maintenance, and using advanced technology to strengthen bridges.

Transportation Director Kirk Stuedel said he discussed the governor’s proposals yesterday with his bosses at the state Transportation Commission.

“They set the policies for the department, and we’re going to be following up with the committee chairs saying ‘It’s about time to be putting our budget together, and our budget is going to be focused a lot around the things that are in this message,’” Steudel said.

Ifmuth / Creative Commons

A new study shows the conditions of Michigan’s roads will continue to decline unless the state can come up with a lot more money to maintain them. More than a third of Michigan’s roads are in poor condition.

The study was released this week by a bipartisan group of state lawmakers. It shows the state needs $1.4 billion more each year for at least 85-percent of roadways to be in good or fair condition.

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

Road work in Michigan has become more quick fixes than long-term repairs as the state balances the scope of construction projects with the dwindling funds necessary to carry them out. A five-year report shows transportation officials expect a drop of more than $700 million annually from what's being spent now in highway program funds beginning October 1st and stretching into the 2015 fiscal year.

The report points to a drop in state revenue and predictions that Michigan will not be able to put up enough matching money to secure all available federal aid for transportation projects.

Michigan's Five-Year Transportation Program invests just over $6 billion into highway and other programs. But upward of $160 million more in state revenue is needed each fiscal year to match all available federal aid.

Flickr/Chris Moncus

People who have unpaid parking tickets in Detroit will be able to take advantage of a special program and pay only half the amount of money they owe. The program is called "All or Nothing Amnesty" and starts Tuesday and ends July 1st.

It also applies to people already in payment plans over parking debt, but does not apply to people whose vehicles have been clamped with a boot.  

Making Michigan’s roads better is the job of a state appointed committee that holds its first meeting this week.  The legislature created the Complete Streets Advisory Council last year.  

Ambassador Bridge
J. Stephen Conn / Flickr

Governor-elect Rick Snyder announced yesterday that he'll keep Kirk Steudle as Director of the Michigan Department of Transportation in his new administration. That could mean continued debate over whether to build a new bridge to connect Detroit to Canada, Laura Weber reports. As Weber explains:

Steudle has drawn heat from Republican lawmakers over the past few years for his support of a second bridge span between Detroit and Canada. The legislators were unhappy with a detailed traffic report from the department, but Steudle says that information will be rolled into continued analysis of the bridge. Governor-elect Snyder says just because he tapped Steudle to continue as director doesn’t mean the bridge will be built. But the discussion will continue.

The proposed Detroit River International Crossing would compete with the Ambassador Bridge.

Lafayette Bait and Tackle
Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

The owner of the Ambassador Bridge and the Michigan Department of Transportation are back in court over a disputed construction project.

One Detroit business owner says that project is forcing him out. Lafayette Bait and Tackle is literally stranded here in the midst of the Gateway Project, as trucks rumble overhead.

That project was a $230 million effort to better connect the Ambassador Bridge to surrounding highways.

It’s also the subject of a long-running legal dispute. The Michigan Department of Transportation says the Ambassador Bridge Company violated project plans when it built entrance ramps and a duty-free plaza.

The Bridge Company has lost several rounds in court. But the ongoing legal drama has left Lafayette Bait and Tackle cut off from the surrounding neighborhood.

Business owner Dean Aytes says his landlord hasn’t paid the taxes on the property. And a lawyer for bridge owner Mattsay Moroun says the landlord has now agreed to sell the property.

Aytes says that means the shop will have to close for good. He says “that billionaire, Matty Moroun, put me out of business.”