On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a conversation about the 2023-2027 Five-Year Transportation Program, approved by the State Transportation Commission Nov. 10.
Michael Case, a planning specialist at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) who oversees development of the program, talks about the history of the process. He also discusses the challenges of trying to forecast the future with ongoing uncertainty over transportation funding, inflation and climate change.
Case also breaks down project highlight focus areas as outlined in the report:
This is the second time the program has included those areas. Case explains how these inform the plan, as well as the plan's emphasis on each focus area across MDOT’s seven regions and its support of various mobility modes.
Case explains how he and his colleagues endeavor to engage even difficult-to-reach audiences to be sure they are included in the public involvement process and weigh in on their unique transportation needs.
What’s in MDOT’s Five Year Transportation Program?
Jeff Cranson: Hello, welcome again to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm your host, Jeff Cranson. Today, we're going to be talking about the five-year program, which was approved by the State Transportation Commission just last week and it is updated every year and there's always some changes and some kind of rolling things in the program. So, I'm going to be talking with Michael Case; Specialist in planning who shepherds the five-year program and has a hefty responsibility trying to put this thing together for the past few years and keep up on everything that's going on with the various programs across the state, not to mention ongoing transportation funding challenges. So once again. Michael, thanks for being here. Let's start with some history and you know how this five-year program exercise came to be and why?
Michael Case: Well, good morning. So, MDOT has published a rolling five-year transportation program annually since 1999. And the reason for that follows the 1998 passage of a state gas tax increase. So, there was a need to better monitor how state funds were being spent on projects and what projects we're moving forward each year. And coupled with the reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st century or T21, so both of those increased funding for state transportation programs, which logically increased the size of the program. So, there became within that context, a need to better monitor what projects we're moving forward over the next five years each year.
Cranson: Do you think that I guess given all the uncertainties you know with inflation and long-term transportation funding challenges, which seems to never really go away in Michigan and then obviously climate change on top of that, I mean is it a fine line between you know characterizing this as a living, breathing document? Or something that should carry a warning will self-destruct in five seconds.
Case: Uh. Well, I would never want to put a document out to the public that would self-destruct in five seconds. So certainly, it's a living, breathing document here that is trying to create a snapshot of, like previously mentioned, all those projects that are you utilizing state and federal dollars for the trunk line system. Um, capturing those by region as well as some of the top priorities of the department as well. So, you know equity, inclusion, transportation, resiliency, complete streets and as of recent, they're rebuilding Michigan program as well and how those are impacting. Having delivery of the program and what projects are moving forward. So, we try to capture the cultural relevancy and you know obviously there's some politics in there as well. So, you know providing an open and transparent picture of what MDOT is doing and the transportation trunkline system over the next five years is the intent. So, it's going to change each year.
Cranson: So. Speaking of that, you know, we've got these project highlight focus areas outlined in the report, equity and inclusion, transportation resilience and complete streets multimodal. This is the second time the program has included those areas. Talk about how each of those inform the plan. And you know what's new in terms of emphasis for this plan?
Case: Sure. So, these are areas that are focus area, these are focus areas that have come out of the state long range transportation program or Michigan Mobility 2045 and the intent of those three areas is to provide a better connection between department priorities and those strategies and objectives outlined in Michigan Mobility 2045. With current projects that are being constructed. In addition to that, connecting the dots, we're trying to help tell a story here in engaging the public and helping them to understand how these projects are advancing those priorities, which during Michigan mobility 2045 were provided by the public, so you know it's kind of a circle in the sense that you know they gave us what they're intended priorities are that went into Michigan Mobility 2045. With the projects we're asking regions on you know exactly how those projects are advancing these priorities and there then we're reporting that back to the public.
Cranson: Let's start with the first. I guess equity inclusion, you know, talk about. Why the emphasis there and how? You know, on the surface, somebody might understand. How can you factor that into the program and what you do? So can you talk a little bit about that,
Case: Sure. So, equity inclusion is not new, but it is new in terms of how to try to measure and report it. So, I think most everybody. Who is in the transportation field is aware of how, particularly with planning for highways. Some disadvantaged communities have been bifurcated and really selected to have an Interstate go through their community in the past based on, you know, their lack of, you know, political power, so to speak. So. You know this area focusing on it is trying to both help understand the impacts of those past decisions, how to rectify them and how projects that are moving forward now can be shaped to better intake input from disadvantaged and previously not spoken for communities to ensure that they reflect the needs, the cultural and physical character of those communities and really what their intent and is for the future.
Cranson: Yeah. So, we've learned from past mistakes. And when I say mistakes at the time people were doing things the way that people did things and working with the information they had. So. You know, this is not to judge anybody in the past. Yeah, but what you're saying is that, you know, we've learned and found ways to be more inclusive and do better.
Case: Right. And to be fair, the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 preceded the National Environmental Policy Act of 1968 and 1969, so you know a lot of these requirements to look at, the environmental, the social and the cultural impacts of projects were not in place at the time that a lot of the planning started for the Interstate system.
Cranson: Right. That's a very good point and something that we try to get across and that a lot of people seem to know that it was all done as part of a, you know, Eisenhower National Defense system strategy. But a lot of people also don't know is that a lot of people at the time- but that was progressive, everybody wanted the 20-minute commute, right? So that's what the interstate system brought us. So, talk about that, that second one and transportation resilience and how we plan for that. Knowing what you know what we've already experienced with flooding, especially in the shoreline roads around the state. And you know, a lot of Michigan is water. That's the good and the bad of it. How do we plan for that and what do you hear back from the regions when you talk about what it's going to take in terms of funding to truly build for resiliency.
Case: So yeah, transportation resilience is an area that MDOT is focused on right now in a couple of different ways. So, for one, I mean we're all aware of altering climate conditions and in that regard, we're trying to, you know, look at how we can further develop projects to be able to adapt, respond to and recover quickly from those hazards and in addition to physical infrastructure that includes threats to information technology, systems, and cyber-attacks as well. So not just looking at, you know, bridges and roads, but it's also you know a holistic look at the security and integrity of the transportation system so and the parts that make it work. So, a big part of this is our transportation operation centers, which monitor the system seven days a week and provide real time travel information to the public. And all kinds of events so crashes, closures, including those that result from weather events. Right now, it's more of a focus on combining the oversight of the operation centers and preparation through planning to ensure we're looking at a level of resilience that reduces our vulnerability and increases reliable mobility following shock or stressor to the system. So, in terms of additional cost, it's not really. I don't think consideration right now other than bridges are really looking deeply at how to maintain infrastructure in a way that withstands flooding events, and we've seen how that can really impact things with the flood in Midlands believe that was that was last year, and you know the governor Whitmer's administration stepped in with some additional funding for that. So thankfully right now there haven't been a whole lot of those physical disruptions. I think to the system where we need to shift funds around, but the main focus is planning for those and how to respond to them at the moment.
Cranson: Yeah, I mean that includes a lot of things. Yeah, it's hard to believe that the Midland flooding was actually two years ago. It was in 2020. It kind of coincided with the beginning of the pandemic and it's hard to believe now. That we were dealing with that at the same time back then we had high water levels in the Great Lakes and some issues even with some of the inland lakes. And on top of that you've got, you know, rising waters in the rivers which create faster currents, and create extra pressure what they call scour on the footing. So, all those things have to be factored in and we've got, you know, what we've experienced in Detroit, obviously with freeway flooding and the money that we're putting into additional generators so that the pumps can always work even if the power is cut off. It's just it's a lot to think about and I think it's great that that's one component of emphasis in the program. So, talk about complete streets a little bit. Michigan complete streets policy has been in place more than a decade now. Is there anything new in that focus area?
Case: Yeah. You bring up a good point. Complete streets are not one of those areas that's not new. What is new is MDOT is ensuring that it's taking a more multimodal approach to the development of all projects, not just those that are smaller in scale and they're looking at, you know, a trail here in a sidewalk there. But how do we commit to improving safety and mobility and accessibility from projects like I-375 and I-696, I-94 all the way down to M routes and in other routes that have got maintenance as well. And you know one of the ways that that's being done most recently there was an influx of money through the Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act or IIJA and MDOT dedicated money to the Main Street program, which really focuses on downtown areas and ensuring that context sensitive solutions are implemented too really bolster and help economic development in those areas.
Cranson: So be honest. Do you feel like that infusion of IIJA funds made your job more difficult or easier?
Case: I would say that it probably made it a little bit of both. It made it easier in a sense that, hey, we can move some projects forward that were shelved previously and that are certainly needed to maintain the system, but also difficult in which ones are the best ones to move forward because you know it sometimes becomes a game of musical chairs, a little bit with, you know, we've got a lot of projects that are needed, but you know, no matter how much funding you have, it seems like they're there isn't quite enough to do all of them. So, you've got to make some hard decisions in terms of what projects are going to have the greatest benefit at the most competitive cost.
Cranson: Yeah, definitely. And you know, once again, Michael Case, who shepherds the five-year program for MDOT anybody who's listening and wants to take a look at the five-year program, very good, robust document, lots of photos and graphics explain things and it's a long URL, but I will just say if you go to michigan.gov/Mdot you'll find it. It's prominently displayed, or you could even do a search for the MDOT five-year program. So, talk a little bit about what you think you see going forward over the next few years beyond you know, what are you already thinking about it for your next program,
Case: Well, for me personally, I'll start with that; I have a passion for public involvement and engagement, so I'm looking at ways to work with our beloved office of communications to help ensure transparency with documents and make sure that we're getting the word out to as broad of a population as possible and not just to those who have, you know, Internet access in our interest in transportation. But those groups that are not currently in the conversation. And have limited access to our primary communication channels. Being social media, e-mail, and our website, so working more with groups and institutions that are connected to communities to make sure that they have information and know about the opportunities for comments. And maybe getting the resources to go out and actually present and talk with them at some point as well. So, we did a lot over the past year with incorporating the ability to translate the document into several different languages actually more than several 110 different languages and modifying its presentation so that it works very well with screen readers. So, we want to capture as broad of audience as possible and make sure even the most definitely the most sensitive populations have the opportunity to help provide their input so outside of my personal look on the future, I think we're going to be you know, because we take in a lot of different information from a lot of different areas and you know it's a rather dense document in our presentation of it has always been good, but you can also always be better. So, I think looking at how we can combine some information about investments and revenues and give a more detailed look at the relationships between these areas and give a more detailed analysis. Particularly to those in the legislature and the public as well about what all these numbers mean. What does it mean when we say we have, you know, $13 billion in revenue, but our investments are $15.8 billion? What does it mean when we talk about these investments, but we also show that the condition of our assets are declining and not only what does it mean, but what can we do about it and do we need help from any particular area? So, I think that's a real opportunity for this document in communicating with those needs are and really helping to facilitate a broad outlook and helping keep everybody on the same page on what needs to be done?
Cranson: Yeah. You talked a little bit about, you know, what you do in those in those rural or even urban, I guess hard to reach areas and it's not unlike the challenges that modern pollsters or people that do surveying for a living are facing, you know, with people not answering their phones and not being available when you try to reach them. So, I can only imagine the challenges and you know how creative you have to be to try to get as much input as possible.
Case: Yeah, it's not easy and you know I've typically referred as an umbrella to you know, those areas are hard to reach groups, so you know, they have some commonalities between them, but they also have some distinct differences as well. You know, there's urban areas that are lower income that may not have access to Internet, and there's rural areas as well that have the same issues, but you know they tend to look at the types of projects that they need differently for obvious reasons. The network is different where each of those areas are so it's not easy to both, you know, to tailor your message appropriately. For those areas as well as use the right kinds of outreach to reach them. So, it's certainly something we continue to work on, and it'll probably be something that we're always working on to improve.
Cranson: Yeah, no, I have a lot of appreciation and respect for everybody that's in involved in in public involvement in government and trying to reach people and ensure as much input as possible. So, is there anything else you want to say, Michael, that we didn't really touch on that, you know, you feel like it's important for people to know about this year's program?
Case: I think I touched on most everything. You know, just maybe recap, you know, the 5YTP. You can find it on the MDOT website, so the most current recently approved by 5YTP for fiscal years 2023 to 2027. We're starting to work on fiscal years 2024 and 2028 already. So, like with this past year. We'll be ready for public engagement and review again come July 2023, so look for it at that time. And if you're not looking for it, then we'll be looking for you.
Cranson: We'll said, OK, well, thanks, Michael. I appreciate it. It's very helpful.
Case: Thank you again for having me.
Cranson: I hope you enjoyed this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast. I want to thank my guest Michael Case. Once again, I'd also like to thank the people who do the hard work behind the scenes to produce the podcast each week. Randy Debler does an outstanding job with the audio editing, Jacke Salinas does the transcription and Courtney Bates, who helps host the podcast and get it ready for production, to subscribe to show notes and more go to Apple Podcasts and search Talking Michigan Transportation.