Shoulder test near Ann Arbor could come to a highway near you

By STEPHEN OLSCHANSKI
Capital News Service

LANSING — An experiment allowing Michigan drivers for the first time to legally drive on a highway shoulder could lead to similar efforts across the state.

Advocates say that the use of advanced technology could prevent accidents, ease congestion and save millions of dollars in construction costs statewide.

Drivers were recently allowed to drive on the shoulder of a stretch of U.S. 23 during rush hour, an option labeled a flex route.

It is the first of its kind in the state and is essentially an initial experiment, said Kari Arend, a media representative for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).

“We will be watching it closely to see how it operates and hopefully eventually adding it to other locations across the state,” Arend said.

Among them is a stretch of Interstate 96 in Oakland County and U.S. 131 near Grand Rapids, places officials say have high congestion similar to U.S. 23.

Savings from the use of the highway’s existing paved shoulder instead of building larger highways can reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars, Arend said

The U.S. 23 flex route opens up the highway’s inside shoulders between M-14 and M-36. That’s  roughly north of Ann Arbor and through Whitmore Lake, one of the state’s most highly congested highway stretches.

The shoulder is open only 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Motorists are alerted of its availability by overhead signs.

Green arrows mean the shoulder is open. A red “X” marks its closure. Yellow arrows alert drivers to merge to avoid traffic accidents. Other signals alert drivers of speed limits.

The flex route also opens during traffic accidents to allow traffic to more easily bypass them.  

Virginia and Minnesota have similar systems that have been successful, Arend said. MDOT looked at these states to see what could be feasible in Michigan.

Police say they hope they improve safety.

“We’re hoping there’s going to be less crashes because traffic is going to flow better,” said State Police Lt. Mario Gonzales of the Brighton post.

Stop-and-go traffic at these times leads to more rear-end collisions, especially when it slows down quickly during rush hour, Gonzales said.

“With these flex lanes, when they’re open, traffic is not going to have those choke points and that’s going to flow better and hopefully reduce those rear end collisions,” Gonzales said.

That would be helpful.

Almost 30 percent of all Michigan crashes occur on state and federal highways, according to the Office of Highway Safety Planning. And there were slightly more than 83,000 rear-end collisions in the state last year, according to the crash data.

Why not keep the shoulders open all the time?

It has to do with the definition of a shoulder, Arends said, because it’s not a “true lane.”,” Arend said.

To add a third lane, the state would have to widen the road and add a shoulder too, costing millions more.

The flex route is part of a $92-million update of roads and bridges along U.S. 23. Without it, the cost of improvements would be close to $200 million, Arend said.

The biggest concern for police is educating people on the rules of the lane.

Drivers could still drive in the flex route at all times, though Gonzales said police would be monitoring the route more heavily. Drivers who pull into the shoulder during noon rush hour times could be at risk if another driver were to use the shoulder illegally.

Illegal use of the route falls under illegal lane use and would put two points on a driver’s record and a $135 ticket if the driver is caught.

Got Lakes? Try cycling around them

By JACQUELINE KELLY
Capital News Service

LANSING — As a professor of politics at Ithaca College in New York, Thomas Shevory knew that his decision to bicycle around each of the Great Lakes would lead to numerous observations of environmental and economic conditions.

But he was surprised to learn how central the lakes are to much of the development of the United States.

“I just never put it together how early exploration and settlement in what is now the U.S. occurred in the north, along the Canadian border,” he said. “I tend to associate colonial America with places like Plymouth Rock, Jamestown, the Puritans, et cetera. But it was hunters and trappers who drove the economy, and they were able to easily get around because of the lakes.”

Shevory has put together an enticing read of what it’s like to travel around the Great Lakes on two wheels. “The Great Lakes at Ten Miles an Hour,” published this fall by the University of Minnesota Press, is available online for $16.95.

Born and raised 25 miles from Lake Erie, Shevory was no stranger to the Great Lakes.  The idea that there was still so much he could explore in his own backyard didn’t even cross his mind until he was more than 6,000 miles away in Ulan Bator, Mongolia.

“I had just got to thinking that we sometimes travel long distances in search of the mysterious or exotic, and that in doing so, we might miss those amazing places that are closer to home,” he said.  “And the Great Lakes struck me as being like that – not that far from me, but in many respects very mysterious.”

Shevory first decided to make a hobby out of cycling in the summer of 1989 after participating in RAGBRAI (the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), a seven-day bicycle ride across the state. Heading into its 45th year, RAGBRAI is the oldest, largest and longest recreational bicycle touring event in the world, although Shevory wouldn’t call it a true cycling tour.

“There was plenty of food and beer,” he said. “I remember some great pulled pork. It wasn’t the most vigorous cycling trip I have ever been on, and it didn’t involve much training. But it definitely sparked my interest.”

The following summer he took his first tour from his home in Ithaca to the northern border of New York. He was hooked.

In the summer of 2011, Shevory began his Great Lakes journey in Sarnia, Ontario. This first leg of his five-lake trip allowed him to see Lake Huron in a different light. Readers feel like they’re accompanying him through bike-friendly tourist towns in “the Thumb” of Michigan. They accompany him past the industrial Essar Steel Algoma plant as they cross the Sault Ste. Marie Bridge into Canada.

Shevory makes observations about the economic, environmental and historical backgrounds of each area he cycles through. Commentary about the bankruptcy of Detroit and loss of jobs in Buffalo not only gives the reader perspective about the deindustrialization of many cities but also casts an optimistic light on their revitalization with new ways to stimulate their economies.

“We know that it is not likely for these industries to be rebuilt as they once were,” Shevory said. “That’s what made it so much more inspiring that these big cities weren’t giving up and are finding new ways to develop the economy by capturing their rich histories, and bringing tourism into beautiful cities.”

As he comments on how each Great Lake played a role in the creation of the United States, he advocates for worldwide environmental stability.

Shevory’s journey ended June 27, 2014 after cycling around Lake Ontario. Each leg of the trip took two to three weeks over a three-year period.

He’s now moved on to rivers and his sights are set on the Colorado River for next summer.

His advice for aspiring cyclists: “You don’t need too much experience to start touring, but you always need to be prepared for the unexpected. Make sure you have proper clothing, and you should be able to change a flat tire or a broken chain.”

Jacqueline Kelly is a reporter for Great Lakes Echo

Used car sales rise as leases expire

By CARL STODDARD
Capital News Service

LANSING — Sales of used cars and trucks in Michigan are rising, thanks in part to more vehicles coming off leases.

For the past five years, sales of used vehicles in the state have been speeding up and still show no signs of slowing, said Terry Burns, executive vice president of the Michigan Automobile Dealers Association, which is based in East Lansing and represents more than 650 new-vehicle dealerships.

Unlike in some other states, in Michigan sales of new and used vehicles tend to be strong and less cyclical because of the state’s long-standing ties to the auto industry, Burns said.

“We’re the auto capital,” he said. “People like cars. People understand cars.”

People in Michigan have been buying more used vehicles as more cars and light trucks come off leases, he said, a trend that started around 2013.

Leasing was a popular option for new-car seekers until 2007 or 2008 when the nation  plunged into a recession, he said.

“Leasing was just about nonexistent” in those difficult financial times, he said. “Banks were under extreme scrutiny. The banking decision was to cut down on leasing at that time.”

But as the recession eased, starting around 2012 or 2013, banks became more willing to offer automobile leases and leasing once again became a popular option, he said.

Now, those leased vehicles are coming back to dealerships and are available  for sale as used vehicles.

“It creates a little bit of a cycle. That’s why you’re seeing more used cars on the market,” Burns said.

When it comes to auto sales, he said, Michigan is a little different than the rest of the country.

“We don’t have the real highs and lows in sales,” he said. “We don’t normally follow the U.S. averages. We’re never seeing extreme swings.”

At the Fernelius dealership in Cheboygan, used vehicle sales are strong, said Travis Vizina, the pre-owned sales manager.

“We’re having a good year. August was a record month,” said Vizina, whose dealership sells Toyota, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram vehicles.

He said used vehicle sales tend to be “a little bit of everything.” The dealership sells cars coming off leases, as well as other used newer and older model vehicles, and the mix includes cars, trucks and sport-utility vehicles, he said.

Sales of used cars have been on the rise at the Serra Traverse City dealership, said Jerry Zezulka, its executive manager.

The dealership, which sells seven new-car brands, was acquired by the Serra Automotive group, headquartered in Grand Blanc, in 2015. It has seen used car and light truck sales increase since that time, he said.

“There’s a need for used cars,” he said, and many of the used cars and trucks the dealership sells were previously leased.

In Sault Ste. Marie, vehicles coming off leases are popular with buyers as well, said Craig Stump, used car sales manager at Rodenroth Motors Inc., a Buick, Chevrolet and GMC dealer.

“We’re in north country, so we sell of lot of SUVs,” Stump said.

Four-wheel-drive pickups also are popular and expected to be even more in demand as winter approaches, he said.

But while sales of used cars are up around the state, the number of used car dealers is not.

“There has not been any real increase or dramatic change in the number of used vehicle dealer licenses” in Michigan, said Fred Woodhams, the communications director for the Michigan Secretary of State.

“In fact, over the past five years, there’s been a small decrease.”

Currently there are 3,615 licensed used vehicle dealers in the state, down from  3,914 in 2012, Woodhams said.

The number of new car dealers in the state also is falling. There are 1,229 new car dealers, down from 1,304 in 2012, according to the Secretary of State.

Manheim Inc., an auto auction company based in Atlanta, said used vehicle sales at franchised U.S. dealerships last year rose for a seventh year in a row.

“We are now at that point in the automotive cycle where percentage gains in used vehicle sales start to exceed those of new vehicles,” Manheim said on its website. “That’s what happened in 2016, and it will likely occur again in 2017.”

Nationwide, dealers are benefiting as more cars and truck come off leases, “which means that quality used vehicle inventory will literally be driven to their door,” Manheim said.

Edmunds.com, an online resource for automotive information, reported that used vehicle sales in the U.S. hit 38.5 million last year, up 0.6 percent from 2015.

Prices of used vehicles also rose last year, Edmunds said. In 2016, the average retail price for a used vehicle was a record $19,183, up 3.4 percent from the previous year.

“Financing was one place consumers found relief from higher prices. Interest rates were at a record low, coupled with slightly longer loan terms,” Edmunds said.

New vehicle sales in the U.S. rose to a record 17.5 million last year, up slightly from the previous year, according to J.D. Power and Associates, a marketing information services company.

Turkeys in traffic — and bears, elk and moose, oh my!

By JINGJING NIE
Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan drivers know to watch for deer on the road — the state recorded 46,870 car-deer accidents in 2016.

But have you ever heard of a driving hazard caused by turkeys?

Michigan police agencies reported 232 vehicle crashes involving the birds in 2016. They are among the species of wildlife that police are identifying for the first time as involved in Michigan traffic accidents.

For the first time, police arecollecting data on turkey, elk, moose and bear, said Scott Carlson, a trooper with the State Police Traffic Crash Reporting Unit.

In 2016, the number of traffic accidents involving each animal is followed by the county with the most accidents:

  • Deer — 46,870 (Oakland County — 1,847)
  • Turkeys — 232 (Jackson County — 17)
  • Bear — 61 (Marquette County — 6)
  • Elk — 22 (Cheboygan County — 5)
  • Moose –18 (Marquette County — 5)
  • Other — 876

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and other users of the state’s traffic crash database showed interest in the type of animals being struck and where, Carlson wrote in an email.

Officers now capture statistics about the five species most often involved in traffic accidents. An “other” selection encompasses other animals such as horses and cows.

The data could lead to new warning signs along highways, state officials said.

Ryan Boyer, a district biologist from the National Wild Turkey Federation, said he isn’t surprised by the number of turkey-involved accidents.

The number of wild turkeys has rapidly increased in the past few decades, he said. The DNR estimates the state’s population at around 200,000 turkeys.

June, July and August is the breeding season for turkeys, he said. “Young turkeys usually are looking for bugs in an opening with a higher numbers of insects It might be one reason behind those crashes.”

Some of the data may be suspect, such as a moose/vehicle collision in Detroit. That’s likely a mistake, said Anne Readett, section chief of the planning and administration section of the Office of Highway Safety Planning.

There aren’t any moose in the Lower Peninsula, said Dean Beyer, a DNR biologist. They live in the Upper Peninsula, away from people.

But there are major roads in the U.P. near where the moose live, he said. And when moose try to cross the road, accidents happen.

Michigan has more elk than moose, said Chad Stewart, the DNR deer, elk and moose specialist. Elk usually live in unpopulated areas of the northern Lower Peninsula.

“It is extremely rare, but occasionally we have a few elk accidents each year,’’ said Amy Trotter, deputy director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs.

They’re usually on I-75 in the northern Lower Peninsula.

The best mechanism to reduce animal-car accidents is hunting, she said.

The actual number of turkey accidents could be higher. Every county i has  spring turkey hunting and some counties have a fall season as well.

Boyer said, “There are more people and more turkeys in the southern part of Michigan, and I think hunting season helps maintain and reduce the turkey population.”

The high number of  bears–61– struck by Michigan motorists is a result of an increasing bear population in both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas, said DNR wildlife specialist Kevin Swanson.

The reason for most bear-related accidents is that bears are simply trying to cross the roads, he said.

“Bears have large range, especially in this season when bears need to put on some fat before they enter hibernation,” he said. They travel a long distance to food sources.

Deer remain the greatest wildlife headache for motorists by far. Fourteen people were killed in traffic accidents involving deer in 2016. None of the other wildlife caused fatal accidents, Readett said.

Erik Schnelle, the president of the Quality Deer Management Association of Michigan.said, “In some areas, the main causes of death of deer is cars since there are no natural predators.”

The key to reducing deer accidents is to achieve a healthy balance in the deer herd.

One reason for the deer overpopulation is restrictions on hunting, Schnelle said.

Science shows a  need to harvest at least 30 percent of female deer in a herd r to maintain the population, Schnelle said.

In some areas in Kent County, 40 to 50 percent of the deer population should be harvested to keep it in check, he said. Hunters should hunt antlerless deer to keep the population down and reduce the number of deer-car accidents.

Police cite fewer speeders, costing counties patrol dollars

By STEPHEN OLSCHANSKI
Capital News Service

LANSING — Speeding might be less risky  for drivers in Michigan as police officers are issuing fewer citations annually.

But that drop is costing county sheriffs’ departments thousands of dollars each year for patrolling the state’s back roads and to investigate crashes.

The program, known as secondary road patrol, is a state program of traffic enforcement and crash investigation on non-main roads in the counties, including parts of national and state parks.

It was funded solely by state grant general fund from 1979 to 1992. But now it is self-funded by the surcharge added to fines generated by traffic citations issued by all police. Partial allocation from the general fund continued from 1992 until 2003 when it  was completely eliminated

The average number of  citations issued per deputy has decreased from 582 in 2006 to 444 in 2016, according to a report by Michigan’s Office of Highway Safety Planning.. That resulted in a loss of nearly $3 million to the secondary road patrol program during the past 10 years.

“The two are intertwined,” said Blaine Koops, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association. “The number of citations equals the amount revenue that’s generated.”

There may be multiple reasons for the decrease in citations, Koops said. But more compassionate officers may be among them.

“Part of it is the whole demeanor of the new police officers,” Koops said. “Number one is more compassionate police officers as far as looking at an individual and their individual circumstances but also their looking at their job differently.”

Koops said more officers are looking at their jobs as more community-based as the people they serve are also the people they live among.

Other reasons for the decrease in citations  have to do with changing road environments. Barriers dividing the freeways have made it more difficult for officers to catch violators.

“If they’re tracking opposite direction traffic, they cannot go through the median to track that vehicle,” Koops said. “If indeed they’re going to track that vehicle, they have to go to the next emergency exchange in the middle of the road which can be several miles away.”

Officers are also more cognizant of being filmed or having to use body cameras which may make them less likely to ticket speeders.

The decrease in funding has led also to a decrease in secondary road patrol deputies funded through the program, taking officers off the road. At the program’s’ inception in 1979, 287 officers were funded by the secondary road patrol funds. Now approximately 126 officers are funded through the program.

That shifted costs to local government. The number of county-funded officers has increased from 1,123 in 1979 to approximately 2,184 in 2016.

“There’s just not enough money to put the deputies on the road,” Koops said. “That money is spent really as far as a funding source to augment the general fund that a county puts into traffic enforcement.”

Eighty-eight percent of the program’s expenditures, or about $11.8 million,  are spent on personnel costs. Each deputy costs approximately $97,258.04 including salary, fringes, vehicles and equipment.

The decrease in funds to the program has no quick solution,  Koops said.

“Truthfully, right now there is no solution,” he said.

Driving trends shifting gears

By JACK NISSEN

Capital News Service

LANSING — Where are Americans driving? Researchers from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute analyzed data from the Federal Highway Administration, and the results are in:

City driving is rising, and it’s risen high.

Researchers Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak found a 33-percent rise in city driving over the past 17 years. This mirrors a 19-percent growth in the U.S. population.

The study found a widening gap between urban and rural driving, with rural driving falling by 12 percent since 2000. This dramatic growth in urban driving and decrease in rural driving left the professors in disbelief.

“We were a little surprised at the big difference and that they didn’t mirror each other,” said Schoettle, a project manager with the institute. “You had a much bigger increase in urban driving during the time we looked at than the decrease in rural.”

It isn’t that everyone who stopped driving on rural roads began driving on urban roads. Those who spent a lot of time driving in cities were actually driving more than they used to.

The study attributed some of the increase in urban driving to the growth in the country’s population. However, as the study notes, this factor alone can’t fully account for the divergent patterns in city and country driving.  

“Basically, after the first few years, there was a big separation where urban driving started to accelerate and take off — rural driving slowly decreased little by little each year,” Schoettle said.

One reason for the divergence in driving was the rise in gas prices.

In 2003, when gas prices made a permanent jump to the mid-$2-per-gallon range, the divide in rural and urban miles began to split. While a price like that now feels normal, 15 years ago it was thought to be high.

“Rural drivers have to go a lot further, so they start to combine trips,” Schoettle said. “They may decide not to drive somewhere because of the distance they have to drive.”

The study’s graph of driving trends has some noticeable dips and peaks. In 2008, both urban and rural driving trends dropped. This was due to the economic recession at the time.

“I expect at some point, there will be a leveling out of rural driving. There has to be a minimal amount of driving for work and business in those areas,” Schoettle said.

“The separation between urban and rural was so wide, it’s not likely to ever come back together at this point.”

Other factors at play are the 2000 and 2010 censuses. With urban areas in the country growing, both censuses led the Federal Highway Administration to reclassify many roads in those areas.

The Federal Highway Administration classifies roadways by their proximity to urban and rural areas. Urban boundaries are defined as “areas of high population density and urban land use resulting in a representation of the ‘urban footprint.’” Rural areas are all territory, population and housing units located outside of urban boundaries.

All roads contained within or outside of those boundaries are classified as urban or rural respectively.

And when the census calls for reclassification, almost every reclassified road becomes urban.

“It’s very rare for any roads to change from urban back to rural,” Schoettle said.

With such a dramatic shift in direction for drivers, the numbers could act as a guide for how traffic engineers in growing cities like Minneapolis or Chicago prepare for the future. For cities that haven’t seen much change in their population, the growing numbers may not change how they do their work.

For example: “Lansing’s population hasn’t seen any big changes in population, so there hasn’t been any change in how much drivers are using our roads,” said Andrew Kilpatrick, a transportation engineer with the city of Lansing.

So if those numbers are true, that would make sense, Kilpatrick said. “I’m sure for bigger cities that have a growing population it would look a lot different.”

Rural and urban transportation agencies seeing shifting driving trends should build for what is ahead, Schoettle said. That means if you’re rural, design for a suburban road. If you’re suburban, design for an urban road.

UP road lands on National Register of Historic Places

By ERIC FREEDMAN

Capital News Service

LANSING — One of America’s most scenic stretches of road, Brockway Mountain Drive in the northwestern Upper Peninsula, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

The National Park Service recognized the 9-mile road built by the Keweenaw County Road Commission in 1933 for its historic importance in recreation, entertainment, transportation, social history and landscape architecture.

“Brockway Mountain Drive is unique in Michigan as a scenic highway built expressly as a scenic drive through rugged country to provide access to grand scenery for the public’s enjoyment,” according to the nomination.

The register is “the official list of the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation,” according to the National Park Service, which administers the federal program.

Brockway Mountain Drive runs between Copper Harbor and Eagle Harbor on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Its nine overlooks “provide incomparable views of Lake Superior to the north and expansive, forested valleys and hills to the south,” the nomination said.

One of them, West Bluff Overlook, stands about 725 feet above the surface of Lake Superior “and offers Brockway Mountain Drive’s widest panoramic views.” It’s also the place where the Skytop Inn gift shop operated from 1935 until 2013. The building has been razed.

“Its construction during the Depression era represents a concerted, and successful, effort to initiate a much-needed public works project, develop the local tourism industry, and provide relief to the unemployed,” the nomination said. The Depression hit Keweenaw County hard with copper mine closings, subsistence farming and high unemployment, and unemployed miners accounted for many of the hundreds of workers on the road project.

Before Brockway Mountain Drive, most of the county’s roads were used for logging, mining and military purposes, and the improving transportation for the less-populated northeastern reaches of the Keweenaw Peninsula “was not a priority during the first decades of the twentieth century, as the Keweenaw Central Railroad provided adequate passenger and freight service to the area.”

The economic hardships of the Depression sparked a push to develop opportunities for automobile tourism. And it worked. For example, between June 16 and June 30, 1939, about 9,800 cars entered the Keweenaw Peninsula through the village of Ahmeek.

“Since opening in 1934, Brockway Mountain Drive has been a leading attraction for visitors to the Keweenaw Peninsula, offering unparalleled views of the picturesque region of Michigan,” the nomination said. “The scenic road, together with two other Depression-era projects, Lakeshore Drive and the Keweenaw Mountain Resort and Lodge, helped Keweenaw County to diversify its economy and emerge from its dependence on mining.”

The road is open only seasonally, and Gregg Patrick, the road commission’s engineer manager, said traffic is busiest in the fall.

Use can spike at 1,000 vehicles a day, but at other times it’s 200 or fewer vehicles, Patrick said.

Property bordering the road includes mountain biking and hiking trails, as well as nature sanctuaries.

 

Bill would define drone misdemeanors

By RAY WILBUR

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan drone operators are split on how a Senate bill aimed at regulating the use of their unmanned aerial vehicles could impact their work.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Pete MacGregor, R-Rockford, would clarify that commercial and recreational drone flight is subject to federal rules, enforced by the Federal Aviation Administration. It would also authorize the use of state misdemeanor penalties for things like privacy violations and establish a task force to recommend whether other state restrictions are needed.

The legislation is co-sponsored by Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City.

While some drone operators see the bill as clarifying guidelines for hobbyists and other operators, others say it creates unneeded regulation, interrupting the work they do. Continue reading

Michigan car crashes are up; blame the economy

By RAY WILBUR

Capital News Service

LANSING — As the state’s economy grows, so does something else that affects the lives of every resident — the number of traffic crashes. And according to experts, the two are related.

Between 2012 and 2015, Michigan’s total number of crashes increased by about 23,000, according to State Police statistics.

That rise to about 297,000 crashes can be attributed to a number of things, said Carol Flannagan, director of the Center for the Management for Safe and Sustainable Transportation at the University of Michigan.

One of them is a strengthening economy that has younger drivers hit the road more often. And those drivers cause more crashes, she said. Continue reading

Park, shop and nest in new downtown buildings

By BRIDGET BUSH

Capital News Service

LANSING—Medium-sized cities looking for ways to expand parking in cramped downtowns are turning to mixed-use structures that combine retail and housing with parking.

The Holland City Council is considering a proposal from Burton Katzman, an Ann Arbor developer, and Rockford Construction of Grand Rapids, to buy a surface parking lot and replace it with a parking ramp wrapped by apartments. The council agreed to take the proposal under advisement.

The city council hosted an open house recently for 10 to 15 developers, residents and merchants to gauge the public’s reaction, said Joel Dye, the director of community and neighborhood services. Continue reading