Solar power changes cause critics to sizzle

Capital News Service

LANSING — A new order by the Public Service Commission (PSC) will reduce savings for homes deciding to generate electricity from solar energy, according to some lawmakers.

And that means less savings and reduced incentives for anyone hoping to save money by adding solar panels to their home.

The solar power community is upset by the change and some legislators are attempting to reverse the effect of the ruling.

Under the order, utility companies will have to pay solar households only the wholesale cost for the energy they produce. Utilities must pay a household or small business for putting energy into their grid. Consumers Energy and DTE Energy are the two largest servicers of solar households in the state.

Most individuals generating their own energy are still connected to the power grid as a backup source of electricity for cloudy days and at night. During the day, excess electricity flows into the grid and solar system owners are credited for that energy by their utility.

Under the new system, the energy going into a household from a utility company will cost the full rate. Energy from the solar household going into the energy grid will be paid at a lower wholesale rate.

PSC staff estimate that solar households will be paid about 10 cents a kilowatt hour. At that rate it would take solar households an additional two to three years, or about 33 percent longer than with current rates, to cover the cost of installing solar panels.

The new policy begins on June 1 and affects only homes and businesses that install new solar systems. Existing contracts will remain valid and unchanged for up to 10 years.

Legislation in the House Energy Policy Committee would repeal any grid charge and block the changes approved by the PSC.

“They have not taken the time to properly weigh the pros and cons of solar energy and because of that, they have come up with a rate that is lopsided,” said Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, one of the sponsors. “That’s a big reason we introduced the bills.”

The co-sponsors include Reps. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, and Tom Barrett, R-Potterville.

The PSC was directed to create the new system by a state energy law in 2016. The commission  was told to develop a new metering program that allows energy companies to make money on their services and that reflects a customer’s fair and equitable use of the grid, said Sally Talberg, the chair of the PSC.

“The commission looks forward to working with stakeholders who may propose refinements or new data and with the Legislature if it seeks to pursue a different approach,” she said.

Rabhi said the proposed metering program fails to accomplish what the Legislature ordered.

“In the legislation that created the grid tariff, it was pretty clear that the Public Service Commission had to take into account the benefits that solar brings to the grid,” such as economic and environmental benefits, Rabhi said.

“Then there are the more tangible things such as providing energy to the grid during the daytime when energy is needed most.”

“The real problem is that they have put into place an interim rate. They have changed the rate in such a way that the benefits of solar are not factored in,” Rahbi said.

Utility companies say that solar households should be paid for the electricity they produce at an equal price to large-scale utilities.

Brian Wheeler, the senior public information director for Consumers Energy, said, “If you want to look at a home with a solar array like a power plant, they both serve as power generators and both will receive the wholesale rate moving forward.”

Like a home in this example, a power plant draws energy from the grid to operate, he said. And just like a solar home, it generates more energy to put back in the grid.

“Just like a power plant, anyone’s home or a customer of ours, they’re paying the price that represents the cost of generating and then distributing energy throughout the grid,” Wheeler said.

John Sarver, a board member at the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, said, “Right now the rate is around 15 cents a kilowatt hour. We believe that metering, as it’s structured now, is fair.”

“There are benefits to when homeowners invest their own money in a solar system and put their excess production on the grid,” Sarver said.

One such benefit is that household solar arrays produce the most energy during the summer and can assist with increased demand on the energy grid by air conditioning units.

Sarver said he doesn’t believe that the smaller payments will have an extensive negative impact on new solar power users. “People will still buy systems even if the return on their investment is lower.”

An alternative to working with utility companies is to purchase batteries to store the generated power.

“If we’re not careful with new policies, we may be encouraging people to take a serious look at batteries and store the power on site, and that doesn’t help anybody,” Sarver said.

“The economics of going off the grid is debatable, but the technology is certainly there.”

Electric cars fighting for fuel in Michigan

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan’s automotive future is looking more electric.

Consumers Energy and DTE Energy, the state’s two largest utility companies, have announced pilot programs in the coming year that will study the number and efficiency of charging stations and consider improvements to promote the adoption of electric vehicles.

The Public Service Commission has held two conferences  on “alternative fuel” vehicles to encourage public discussion of the state’s role in electric vehicle charging, said Nick Assendelft, the media relations and public information specialist for the commission.

Participants raised questions about the regulatory framework, such as whether users would pay directly for charging stations or through utility companies, Assendelft said.

Pilot programs discussed included initiatives by Consumers Energy and DTE Energy to partner with automakers and charging station companies in places like Ann Arbor and Detroit, Assendelft said.

At the latest conference, Consumers Energy presented its “Electric Vehicle Strategy.” The utility plans to seek opportunities such as streamlining home charging equipment installation, working with General Motors to improve at-home charging and beginning a three-year pilot program on infrastructure.

DTE presented a plan to start six pilot programs in 2018, including charging “showcases” in Detroit and Ann Arbor and “extreme fast” charging on highways.

Consumers Energy press officer Brian Wheeler said the company is    interested in doing what it can to promote development of electric vehicle infrastructure.

The company’s hope is that Michigan will be a leader in electric vehicle technology, just like it became a leader when the auto industry  started up, he said.

Part of building a network for charging will include home, public and highway stations. Also, Consumers Energy will look into encouraging installations through methods such as rebates, particularly for homes, Wheeler said.

No formal plan for the upcoming pilot project has been submitted yet and there’s currently no timetable, Wheeler said, but a plan should be submitted to the Public Service Commission soon.

“This is really an exciting time because while electric vehicles don’t make up a large portion of what you see on the road now.  It’s growing and it’s going to continue to grow,” Wheeler said.

Michigan Electric Auto Association President Bruce Westlake said electric cars are becoming more popular because the economics are becoming more viable: The last few years’ worth of electric vehicles from Tesla and other automakers  are much more affordable, he said, and cost less to operate than gas-fueled cars.

The association just completed two Earth Day events, Westlake said. In the 10 or more years such events have taken place, Westlake said he saw the most electric engines this year, potentially double past interest.

Michigan sits in about middle-of-the-pack for the number of electric cars in the state, Westlake said.

While some states have incentives for purchasing electric vehicles, Michigan in some ways punishes drivers for purchasing electric cars. As of Jan. 1, Michigan electric car owners  pay an additional $135 to register their vehicles, and hybrid car drivers pay an extra $47, the Secretary of State’s office said.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center says there are 362 public stations for electric vehicles in Michigan, including older “legacy” chargers. Michigan has the 17th-most public charging stations, although it’s the 10th most populous state, according to the U.S. Census..

According to Consumers Energy, there are no utility, state or federal incentives for public or home charging stations for electric vehicles.

When it comes to charging infrastructure, it might not have a large impact on electric car ownership. Charging stations are a “chicken or the egg” kind of situation, Westlake said: Most people want to know if there’s charging infrastructure available before they buy, but the vast majority of the time they’ll be charging at home.

Plan to coordinate roadwork expected soon

Capital News Service

LANSING — A pilot program looking for better ways to coordinate the repair, maintenance and replacement of Michigan’s roads and other infrastructure is finishing its recommendations this month.

The recommendations will address ways to implement the program statewide, improving efficiency and saving money. Under the “integrated asset management” concept, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said the state expects all private and public entities involved in public infrastructure to work together to handle projects more efficiently.

For example, Calley said, consider a hypothetical road being repaved in front of the Capitol. Under integrated asset management, all necessary improvements such as water, sewer, cable lines and sidewalks would be coordinated so road is torn up only once.

“It’s the same concept as if you’re having your driveway repaved at the same time that they’re repaving the road in front of your house. It would be a lot cheaper because the equipment and materials are already there,” Calley said. “We think there can be substantial savings.”

Therese Empie, a strategy advisor for Gov. Rick Snyder, staffed the governor’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission. It looked across the state to figure out what Michigan needs to do to have a world-class modern infrastructure in the next 30-50 years.

“Currently, infrastructure in Michigan exists in silos,” Snyder’s executive directive reads. “There are 700 separate road and drain agencies; 79 transit agencies; 1,390 drinking water systems; 1,080 wastewater systems; 116 electric utilities; 10 natural gas utilities and 43 broadband providers.”

The pilot program, which started in 2017, grew out of a commission recommendation, Empie said. Empie said Michigan is the first state to undertake a program like this.

The long-term goal is for asset management to result in coordination and cost efficiencies for public and private utilities, Empie said.

The pilot program includes 153 participating governmental units in two of the state’s regions, Empie said. The West Michigan region covers 13 counties, including Ionia, Lake, Mecosta, Mason, Oceana, Montcalm, Ottawa, Kent, Allegan, and the Southeast Michigan region covering Metro Detroit participated.

“We had communities as small as a few hundred people participating, to large communities like Grand Rapids,” Empie said.

The pilot program’s recommendations are due to Snyder by the end of the month, Empie said, and the pilot’s final report will be released to the public on May 4.

A bill introduced by Rep. Rob VerHeulen, R-Walker to create a Michigan Infrastructure Council to oversee implementation of a statewide asset management system has passed the House, Empie said, and has been sent to the Senate Transportation Committee.

“It’s a lot of exciting work, and we can do it,” Empie said. “It’ll take a little bit of time, but we have a lot of passionate people here who are very knowledgeable throughout the state and at every level of government that are definitely gonna work to get it done.”

Note: Article correct April 23, 2018, to show that Empie staffed  the governor’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission but wasn’t a member of the commission.

Boating is up, and so are accidents

Capital News Service

LANSING – Are Michigan waters getting less safe for boaters, with or without motors?

The number of recreational boating accidents in the state increased from 92 in 2013 to 125 in 2016, and deaths increased from 21 in 2012 to 38 in 2016, according to the latest report from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Accidents are happening on inland waters and on the Great Lakes. Last year, for example, on July 22, a 45-year-old woman was critically injured after a boat crash near Grand Haven.

On Aug. 6, a 23-year-old woman died from injuries caused by being thrown from a tube into another boat on Sand Lake in Clare County.

And on Sept. 17, a 23-year-old Holland man died in a personal watercraft accident on Lake Michigan.

One factor in the rising accident toll is the increasing popularity of paddle sports  — participation is up about 7 percent annually, experts say.

Over the last five years,  the number of powered vessels and paddle craft has grown steadily, said Dennis Nickels of Grand Haven, the chair of the state’s Waterways Commission.

There are more than 600,000 paddle sport vessels in the state, according to the Coast Guard.

“In three years, the number of paddle crafts in Michigan water will exceed the number of powered vessels,” Nickels said.

As a paddling enthusiast for over 40 years, Nickels said he’s  “extremely excited about promoting the paddle sports in Michigan, but we’ve got to find a way to keep them safe.”

July and August are the heaviest boating months, said Jeff Pendergraff, Crawford County’s undersheriff in charge of the Marine Division.

To make sure of boaters’ safety, the Marine Division strengthens its workforce from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, Pendergraff said. “Some officers retired from other places, and they come and work here [for the Marine Division] in the summer to do marine enforcement.”

“Generally, there was an accident and alcohol was involved,” he said, adding that many people aren’t aware they cannot operate a boat well while drinking.

The general things that Crawford County’s Marine Division looks into include whether boaters wear life jackets, checking that they’re not drinking too much and making sure jet skis don’t get too close to swim areas, boats and anchors, Pendergraff said.

Chris Dekker, the chair of West Michigan Offshore, said that to improve boating safety, the Hudsonville-based powerboat club provides members with safety videos and a code of conduct to educate and regulate boaters’ behaviors.

The big factors that cause boating accidents are excess speed and alcohol, Dekker said. “Just staying on the basics and having a healthy fear of what can happen on the water is the key.”

Pothole claims? Fuhgeddaboutit

Capital News Service

LANSING — State agencies rarely reimburse drivers for pothole damages, a fact that rings true for drivers seeking reimbursement from county governments as well.

In Gladwin County, all damage requests are handled by a third party, Sedgwick Claims, according to Dave Pettersch, the managing director of the county’s road commission.

Any claims paid go against the road commission’s insurance, although the county receives only about one request per year, he said.

“Once they leave here, we usually don’t hear back on the results of them,” Pettersch said. “But very few of them are paid out.”

To be eligible for county payouts, the damage must have occurred on a county-maintained road. The offending pothole also had to be known to the commission but not fixed, said Pettersch. He also serves as vice president of the County Road Association, an advocate for Michigan’s 83 county road agencies.

At the state level, payouts are capped at $1,000 per claim, with lawsuits being the only option for drivers seeking higher amounts, according to the Department of Transportation. As it stands, MDOT has 30 days from being informed of a pothole’s existence to fix it before it can be held liable to reimburse drivers.

Even with clear eligibility guidelines for submitting a claim, the state rarely approves payments — only 27 of 717 requests were approved in the last three years, according to MDOT records.

Pothole reports filed with MDOT aren’t publicly available, although they are subject to Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act. This can make it a challenge to verify whether rejected claims involved potholes that went unfixed for more than 30 days.

In response, House Democrats have introduced a bill package that would raise the maximum payout for pothole damage to $5,000, limit the maximum response time to seven days and create a website for the public to track where and when potholes have been identified. The bills would apply to claims only against the state.

The lead sponsors are Reps. Leslie Love, D-Detroit; Patrick Green, D-Warren; and Darrin Camilleri, D-Brownstown Township. The bills are pending in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Similar regulation at the county level would hurt county road agencies, said Todd Behring, the managing director of the Montmorency County Road Commission.

He said that the $175 million in additional road funding unanimously approved by the Legislature  this year should be reserved for exactly that — the roads.

“The roads are an issue. That’s why we’re getting extra funding to try and make them better,” Behring said. “We’re not getting funding to give to the general public because they hit a pothole.”

Both Behring and Gladwin County’s Pettersch agreed that drivers must pay attention to the roads, as counties simply do not have the money to be aware of and fix every pothole.

Paying for every instance of pothole damage to cars would pose “an insane threat” to county budgets, Pettersch said.

County road commissions “have the funding to fix the roads, and drivers have the responsibility to slow down,” Pettersch said. “That’s what it comes down to. If you’re in an area where you know there’s potholes or you see them coming, move around them or go through them slowly.”

Rural areas like Montmorency County, which has only 19 residents per square mile, rarely get valid claims of pothole damage, Behring said. That’s something that happens only “maybe down in the cities.”

Behring said he hasn’t handled even one pothole damage claim in his three years as managing director.

“It’s a little slowed-down up here,” Behring said. “People don’t drive 85, 90 miles an hour. We don’t have the traffic that you’ve got down there.”

Nearly 90,000 miles of road are maintained by counties, representing about three-quarters of the state’s total road mileage.

However, they aren’t subject to the same stress, as fewer drivers use county-maintained roads as a whole. State-funded roads account for only 8 percent of Michigan’s total road mileage and carry 53 percent of total traffic, according to MDOT.

Michigan spent about $314 per person on state-maintained roads in 2015, the most recent year available from the Federal Highway Administration.

For comparison, neighboring Ohio spent $502 per capita — which is still less than Illinois’ $527 or Wisconsin’s $616.

MDOT Director Kurt Steudle said Ohio focused its repair efforts on highways closest to the Michigan border to show drivers the difference immediately after crossing state lines.

Many of Michigan’s pothole problems would likely be less severe if the state could afford more than so-called Band-Aid fixes, Steudle said.

“If for the last 10 years we had been doing longer-term repairs, they would be more structurally sound,” Steudle said.

Bike sharing finds a place in more Michigan cities

Capital News Service

LANSING — Some Michigan cities have joined a growing group of communities nationwide  turning to bike share programs.

In 2010 there were only four city-wide systems in the U.S. where residents could rent bicycles. That jumped to 55 systems with 42,000 bikes in 2016, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, an organization of 62 major cities and 10 transit agencies.

Even though it is a home to the U.S. auto industry, Michigan is also keeping up with the tide. Detroit, Ann Arbor and Port Huron have launched bike sharing systems. Others are working to make the concept feasible.

“Bike sharing is an interesting idea,” said Amy Sasamoto, the Holland Downtown Development Authority coordinator. Her city surveyed residents  in December 2016 on its website to see if a bike share program is feasible there.

Local bike shops rent bikes to tourists and the downtown area is small, so “a bike share may not be that beneficial to downtown Holland,” Sasamoto said.

Funding is also a problem. “There were some questions as to how the funding could be obtained —  the budget could not support or effectively manage the system,” she said. “The city manager wanted the program to be free, and that made financing the idea difficult as well.”

So the program is on hold as the city looks for other ways to promote biking.

That includes making the downtown safe and accessible for bicyclists.

“Recently we underwent a road reconstruction on one of our main downtown streets, and part of the reconstruction added some bike lanes, and also the shared-lane markings. We put together on a map where those bike lanes are located throughout the city,” Sasamoto said. “We have partnered with some biking groups to do family rides and things like that.”

Meanwhile in Grand Rapids in February, the city commission approved a study to test the feasibility of a bike share program. The study estimated the start-up cost at $300,000.

“Bike share is found in many cities across the United States and is typically part of a larger effort to provide as many transportation options to people as possible,” said Kristin Bennett, the transportation planning and programs supervisor for the city.

A hybrid-type bike share system was approved by the study’s steering committee. The system combines stations and hubs with a “smart” bike that can be docked at hubs/bike racks but can also dock into stations.

“It could offer the most in terms of quality and versatility, especially as a system is initially developed and expanding,” Bennett said.

The study recommended options for single rides, a monthly pass, a student pass and a lower-income pass.

“A cash option for bike share passes would certainly be included,” Bennett said. “Equitable access to a bike share system is a major goal of the study’s steering committee.”

“The most frequent concerns we heard during our public engagement wasn’t against bike share,” she said, “but rather concerns about traffic safety while bicycling and who was responsible if something happened while riding a bike share bike, such as mechanical problems, theft and other damage.”

The Grand Rapids program won’t move forward until the city commission adopts a bicycle action plan to be completed this summer, Bennett said.

It could likely take another year or so to get the system off the ground, she said. “But that is all dependent on a number of factors, including funding, system planning and lead times from equipment providers to get equipment here and installed.

Lindsey DesArmo, the chair of League of Michigan Bicyclists, said safety is a concern for people who bicycle, walk or drive, and isn’t necessarily specific to bike sharing programs.

The league is an advocacy group representing the interests of bicyclists. It has advocated for legislation for safe distances for motorists to pass bicyclists and drivers drivers’ education training to address safety concerns about non-motor transportation.

“As the state becomes more strategic about the mobility of its people, bicycle infrastructure and bike sharing programs play an integral role in providing options for people to move from point A to point B,” DesArmo said.

Rural bicyclists, mindful of road deaths, look for safer measures

Capital News Service

LANSING — For bicyclists, a 2016 crash that killed five and left four injured is still a potent reminder of the importance of protecting non-motorized vehicles that take the road.

“That was an event that has been unprecedented in Michigan history,” said Aneta Kiersnowski, communications director for the League of Michigan Bicyclists. “The attention that the tragedy brought to the issue of bicycling safety really helped bring about positive solutions.”

The crash in rural Cooper Township, north of Kalamazoo, highlighted some of the issues with rural biking that the Legislature and local governments have since aimed to address.

Ten Michigan cities have adopted “complete street” ordinances and resolutions in response to a 2010 law that aimed to make all roads accessible for both motorized and non-motorized traffic. These cities include Manistique, Sault Ste. Marie and Lansing.

However, Kiersnowski said there were factors in that crash that could not have been prevented with improved legislation.

Charles Pickett, Jr., the driver of the pickup truck that hit the nine bicyclists, faces charges including five counts of operating a vehicle while intoxicated causing death. Investigators have not determined exactly why Pickett was driving so erratically.

Jury selection for Pickett’s trial is scheduled to start April 23.

Because of the Cooper Township incident — and the rate at which incidents involving motorized vehicles and bicyclists could be prevented — Kiersnowski said the League of Michigan Bicyclists is trying to get people to stop using the word “accident” in reference to those incidents. The organization prefers the term “crash.”

One of the best ways to ensure bicyclists’ safety in rural areas? Maintain dedicated trails, according to Scott Slavin, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) unit manager for William Mitchell State Park and the White Pine Trail.

The White Pine, a 94-mile trail between Comstock Park and Cadillac, runs along the former Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad.

Outside of the snowy season, there is no motorized traffic allowed on the White Pine.

“That’s definitely a safety factor and a comfort factor,” Slavin said. “Most people that use it know that there’s not going to be motor vehicle traffic, so if they’re taking small children they feel comfortable riding bikes down there.”

Kiersnowski said that while rural trails do have their benefits, they may not be as safe as they might seem, given the wide variety of speeds at which walkers, bicyclists and motorized traffic use them.

“They’re not necessarily safer because they are multi-user trails most of the time,” Kiersnowski said. “Although smaller, more rural areas do a lot to build up their trails, it shouldn’t be the end-all be-all for bicycle safety.”

During the winter, a large northern portion of the trail is open to snowmobiles. Slavin said that due to the efforts of the Pere Marquette Snowmobile Club, based in Evart, to maintain the trail — like clearing it of brush for better sight lines — fat-tire bikes and snowmobiles have been able to co-exist without any concerns.

The Snowmobile Club’s efforts are an example of how the DNR partners with local non-profits and volunteer groups to maintain the White Pine Trail, Slavin said.

This collaboration with local organizations on day-to-day maintenance is often necessary, as inconsistent funding from the federal levels can leave parks holding the bill.

The financial uncertainty of the Kal-Haven Trail, which runs between Kalamazoo and South Haven, speaks to that point. The Kal-Haven has gained and lost various features over the years, such as a shuttle program for one-way bikers and a trail pass system to pay for maintenance.

Nearly $50 million in federal funds through the Transportation Alternatives Program were available to the state in fiscal year 2016, according to data compiled by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that preserves unused rail corridors for use as bike trails.

That was up drastically from a 10-year low of just under $10 million in 2009, but below 2006’s peak of $65 million.

This program authorizes funding for programs and projects defined as transportation alternatives, including on- and off-road pedestrian and bicycle facilities, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Are Michigan roads ready for self-driving cars?

By Gloria Nzeka
Capital News Service

LANSING – If you drive or travel on Michigan roads, you know that they’re not in the best of shape. As discussions about automated vehicles increasingly appear in the news, cars and tech enthusiasts may be wondering: If we can’t build roads without potholes, how do we build them for automated cars?

Or: Are Michigan roads ready to accommodate self-driving cars?

“On one level, yes, the roads are ready because those vehicles will have to work on the roads that we have,” said Richard Wallace, director of the Transportation Systems Analysis group within the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

“The driver has to be capable,” Wallace said, referring to the computer system that will pilot automated cars through artificial intelligence, or AI. “That’s why you have driving tests, and we will need some sort of equivalence for AI systems.”

In 2013, Michigan became the fourth U.S. state to regulate the testing of automated vehicles. The legislation was updated in 2016 and manufacturers and suppliers of automated vehicle technology could now test pilot automated cars on public roads. Since then, GM and Google’s automated cars unit – Waymo – have been testing some of their automated vehicles in Michigan.

“A highly automated vehicle can travel across the country, and it uses its sensors to detect pavement markings, signs, physical objects along the road and compares it to its [high-definition] map for comparison to assure itself of its location,” said Kirk Steudle, director of the Department of Transportation.

Steudle said automated vehicles can drive on Michigan’s roads as they are today. However, he said, new technologies should be added to new infrastructure projects.

Wallace said infrastructure needs to adapt to the way automated cars will navigate, because our current signage and lane markings have all been built on the premise of human drivers.

“The way to tell an automated vehicle that the speed limit is 65 is probably not a big white sign with black letters that says 65 on it, that’s not optimal for computer understanding,” Wallace said.

To help meet new automation needs, “public agencies can initially focus on pavement marking quality and technology upgrades to traffic signals when they are being replaced to allow for future adaption,” Steudle said.

Wallace suggested that one way to communicate with automated vehicles on the road will be to put a readable code on the side of the road, or a digital signature emitting a pulse that can be read wirelessly, telling an automated car that 65 is the speed limit.

“At some point, five or 10 years from now, while we have both human and computer driving vehicles, we will need both the sign that says 65 and the digital signature that says 65 to the computer,” Wallace said.

In addition to making roads ready for automated vehicles, Wallace said we need to be sure automated vehicles are ready to be on the road. Wallace said the technology has a ways to go.

“I don’t think we are completely ready to have empty vehicles out there. We’re still testing them with humans to see whether they’re ready and unfortunately that’s not perfect either,” Wallace said. “I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow but it might happen in one year.”

Wallace also said our regulations, law and liability regime are not ready either. Referring to a recent accident in Arizona, where an Uber automated vehicle crushed a pedestrian, he said:

“We don’t really know who’s going to get the liability here. Is it Uber, the driver that was behind the wheel but didn’t react? Some people are saying it’s the woman’s fault, did she jaywalk? I think our legal frameworks are going to have to change.”

How soon automated cars show up on our roads will largely depend on lawmakers. The federal government is working on a certification of Artificial Intelligence systems for driving vehicles, but Wallace said progress is slow.

One of the things that proponents of automated vehicles champion is safety. Steudle said in order to achieve those safety and congestion benefits, the vehicles will need to communicate better with each other and the infrastructure.

Election season might delay any road-funding fixes

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan’s crumbling roads — long the subject of jests, memes and most of all, pain — are now voters’ highest priority. And the future of the issue might depend on which candidates they choose in 2018.

According to a Marketing Resource Group poll released March 27, 49 percent of voters said Michigan’s roads were one of up to two issues they’re most concerned about. Education beat out jobs and the economy for second place.

The poll states this is the first time in more than a decade that the economy was not voters’ No. 1 concern.

Heading into the 2018 midterm elections, when Michigan will elect a new governor, some action has been taken: Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill providing an additional $175 million in road funding from Michigan’s general fund.

However, even with a $1.2 billion package signed by Snyder in 2015 that will continue to roll out in coming years, a nonpartisan commission convened by Snyder, the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission, concluded in 2016 that Michigan will need an additional $4 billion in infrastructure funding, including $2.2 billion annually for roads, highways and bridges.

Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he doesn’t see further changes to road funding or Michigan’s gas tax being made in an election year. Road funding has been a contentious issue in the past, Casperson said, so action might be postponed with legislators focused on their campaigns.

“You’re heading into the election season. I don’t think either side is gonna want to do that,” Casperson said. “In fact, I would argue that at this point a lot of people running for office are hoping that that $175 million and the extra money coming from the increases that were put in place start hitting the roadways so people can see that they’re getting value for their money.”

A longstanding issue for road funding in Michigan is the state’s 6 percent sales tax, which also applies to fuel sales. According to the Tax Foundation, a non-profit that advocates for “smarter, simpler” tax policy, Michigan pays the fifth-highest gas tax in the country at 40.44 cents per gallon as of January 2017. According to MDOT, only a flat 26.3 cents per gallon of that is tax intended for road funding.

Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle said Michigan collects about $1 billion a year in sales taxes on gas, but all that money is directed toward schools and cities by the Michigan constitution. While not enough to meet the state’s projected funding needs, that revenue — if directed at road repair — would mark a significant increase.

“There will be the claim Michigan is a high gas tax state, but you have to ask, ‘But, what about the sales tax? Who else includes sales tax?” Steudle said. “There’s only, I think, three or four states that collect sales tax on motor fuels.”

Steudle said a gas tax fix was on Snyder’s radar in 2011, and improvements were made as part of the 2015 package: The flat 19 cents per gallon gas tax and 15 cents per gallon diesel tax were raised to 26.3 cents per gallon, and the taxes were tied to inflation starting in 2022. However, Michiganders still pay a 6 percent sales tax on gas that does not help fund roads.

Casperson said he hasn’t heard of anyone trying to revisit the gas tax recently, but it’s been an issue he’s faced in the legislature since 2003. Casperson served in the House from 2002 to 2008. He has served in the Senate since 2010.

“We could never come up with a consensus, and it didn’t seem to matter who was in charge,” Casperson said. “Whether the Democrats controlled things or the Republicans, neither side wanted to take it on.”

Casperson said the 2015 package was a good start, but wasn’t quite what a lot of people were hoping for.

“Our gas tax is high, but 6 percent of it is the lion’s share of the tax on gases and none of it is going to the roads,” Casperson said. “If we don’t deal with that for the future, I think it’s going to plague us continually.”

Counties get new money to fix roads after tough winter

Capital News Service

LANSING — County road commissions, faced with unexpectedly severe road deterioration, have welcomed additional road funding approved recently by the state.

The Legislature allocated $175 million to the Department of Transportation (MDOT) to spend on summer road maintenance.

“With the spring flood event, we definitely got into the carry-over from last year and we’ll be able to make the repairs we need to without worrying about canceling any projects for this year,” said Chris Minger, the managing director for the St. Joseph County Road Commission.

“If this would have happened a few years back we would have had to cancel quite a few projects,” Minger said.

Counties saw greater road break-up than they budgeted for this winter, said Ed Noyola, the deputy director of the County Road Association of Michigan.

“Generally we don’t allocate for such a multitude of spring breakups, and that’s going to affect most budgets,” Noyola said, “but it’s just going to depend on what part of the state you’re in.

“Counties budget for winter and non-winter maintenance,” Noyola said. “Anything that goes beyond the winter maintenance starts leaking into the non-winter maintenance money in order to fill these potholes — which means they won’t have as much money to make improvements.”

MDOT is scheduled to see a more permanent funding increase of $1.2 billion over the next three years as part of Gov. Rick Snyder’s road funding package passed in 2015.

According to a 2015 report by MDOT, “we needed an additional $2.2 billion annually in order to make substantial improvements,” Noyola said.

“We got $1.2 billion,” Noyola said, “and that won’t be fully phased in until 2021.”

Road commissions are cautious about assuming that the funding will come through.

“With term limits coming up, a lot of the legislators that passed the bill are going to be gone,” said Brian Gutowski, the managing director for the Emmet County Road Commission. “We have to make sure that the new group of representatives and senators that come in are going to follow through.”

If that funding doesn’t come through, “then all my plans to get this 148 miles of roads done will be thrown out the window,” Gutowski said. “We have just enough to keep our head above water and keep the roads in the condition they’re in now.”

Counties receive funding based on the miles of roads, vehicle registrations and population in their counties, Noyola said.

Michigan requires road commissions to perform preventive maintenance on good roads first as part of an asset management plan.

Keeping the road system in fair to good condition is the most efficient and cost-effective method, said Deepak Gupta, the engineering manager for the Clare County Road Commission.

“What you don’t want to do is fix the worst first,” Gupta said.

The quality of roads is rated as good, fair or poor.

Good roads have relatively new pavement and require little maintenance, Gutowski said.

Improving roads in fair condition can cost between $20,000 and $115,000 per mile, and poor roads can cost between $275,000 and $350,000 to bring them back to good condition, Gutowski said.

“We have about 90 miles of primary roads that are in poor condition,” Gutowski said. We would have to spend $25 million on those 90 miles to get those back into good condition.”