Talking Michigan Transportation

In the year 2045, what will transportation look like in Michigan?

July 22, 2021 Season 3 Episode 66
Talking Michigan Transportation
In the year 2045, what will transportation look like in Michigan?
Show Notes Transcript

On this edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, Brad Sharlow, point person on MDOT’s state long-range transportation plan, talks about the extensive engagement and public involvement involved in the process.

Michigan Mobility 2045, or MM2045, is the department’s ambitious project to look into a big crystal ball and see what our needs will be and how mobility will factor into how we live, work and play.

Some ways MM2045 helps Michigan residents:
-        Demonstrates how to get there so that the public can understand decision-making and hold transportation agencies accountable to their commitments.
-        Explores how additional revenue will grow Michigan’s economy, advance equity, adapt to climate change, and improve health and quality of life today and into the future.

Sharlow explains that, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, this transportation plan included an expansive outreach and public involvement process utilizing a variety of new methods. He also says MM2045 is the first state long-range transportation plan in the country to fully integrate state freight and rail plans into a combined long-range transportation plan. In addition, MM2045 incorporates Michigan’s first active transportation plan and statewide transit strategy.

As noted with recent heavy rains and flooding in Metro Detroit, Sharlow also talks about the plan’s discussion of the need to prepare the system to be more resilient, redundant, and technology-ready.

Among other findings, the pandemic has accelerated ongoing trends toward urbanization, more-flexible travel patterns, e-commerce, and changes in the supply chain. While Michigan’s vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has largely recovered to pre-pandemic levels, passenger travel and freight patterns may look quite different than they did pre-pandemic.

Also noted: Michigan’s aging population. By 2045, Michigan’s age 65-and-older population is expected to increase significantly, accounting for the bulk of the state’s 7 percent projected growth. To age in place independently, older Michiganders will need access to on-demand paratransit service, rides to medical appointments, walkable communities, and other alternatives to driving. In part due to aging but also in part to generational preferences and urbanization, the number of households without a vehicle is projected to bump up from 7.9 percent to 9.1 percent in 2045, with increases across all regions of the state.


Jeff Cranson: I’m Jeff Cranson, and this is Talking Michigan Transportation.


Cranson: Today, we're thinking about what transportation needs will be in Michigan 25 years from now. Michigan Mobility 2045, or MM2045, is the department's ambitious project to look into a big crystal ball and see what our needs will be and how mobility will factor into everything involved and how we live, work, and play. Brad Sharlow heads up MDOT's Urban Travel Analysis Unit and has been overseeing MM2045.


Cranson: So, Brad, what is MM2045? Tell us why it's important. Why does the federal government ask state DOTs to engage in this process?

Brad Sharlow: Sure, well, MM2045 is Michigan’s State Long-Range Transportation Plan, and overall, this really sets the long-term direction on where the state of Michigan wants its transportation network to be over the long-term future. So, this offers an opportunity to really look at where do we want to go, where do we want to be, and how do we get there. So, yes, states overall are required to put these long-range policy documents together and to coordinate with stakeholders, the general public, and all transportation providers across all modes of transportation in order to develop that long-term direction and vision for the state of Michigan.

Cranson: How do you know or how do you get to a place where you feel like you've really had robust involvement? I mean, on one hand we have, you know, more ways to communicate with each other than we've ever had with so many social media platforms, so much technology available to all of us. But on the other hand, you know, social scientists will tell you that we're, like, less connected than ever and our interests and attention spans are scattered. So, how do you feel confident that you've really reached, you know, everybody that's going to be touched by this, which is everybody because transportation touches everybody?

Sharlow: That's a great question. I guess we always feel that we can reach out to more people as a whole, but, really, this time we went above and beyond to try to reach a diverse audience overall, throughout the state of Michigan, to be inclusive as well as to be equitable in terms of how we go about reaching out. So, in this effort, we really looked at what other states did in the past and really tried to build on that. So, a few highlights that we did here through the engagement of this plan is we were able to reach out to over 14,000 citizens and respondents through a hybrid of different survey opportunities as well as both in-person meetings and virtual workshops that we've held over the last three years. So, we did four different online surveys, two of those were using the MetroQuest software where we reached about 7,700 people through those two surveys. We did an attitudes and perception survey that reached about 1,500 people statewide. We also did a separate survey focusing on the needs of disability groups and received 200 responses for that survey. Then finally, we did two rounds of telephone town hall meetings where between those two events we reached 6,300 statewide representatives across all 83 counties in the state of Michigan. So, as a result, we really feel we've done a pretty decent job reaching out and targeting populations throughout the state. We've also worked with other professionals, both at MDOT and partnering agencies, to reach out to environmental justice communities and to make sure that we go to went to the people or went to events where people were already going to be at. So, the numbers speak for themselves, but even beyond the numbers, just to share involvement and word of mouth that has been going on through this effort has been really extensive.

Cranson: Yeah, so, I think it's great that you guys have put so much emphasis on equity and, you know, involving everybody, you know, access for all, not just in terms of what we do in transportation but access for all in terms of forming a long-range plan. How do you feel like you can gauge that transparency and accountability that I know is really important? It's a priority of yours and a priority of the departments for this plan on how it's implemented.

Sharlow: Well, one thing we did in addition to just doing general outreach is we form the stakeholder group that involves representatives from partnering agencies across different modes of transportation, advocacy groups. We have two university professors from Michigan State and Michigan Tech who teach transportation planning and engineering. We have Michigan Fitness Foundation and then other state agencies and metropolitan planning organizations. We've brought all those people into the development of this plan. We have been meeting about four times a year, so we've met at least seven or eight times. They helped write the vision statement. They helped write the goals, and they reviewed and commented on all the objectives and the strategies and everything else. So, really that accountability because they were the ones there helping write this information and craft this vision and everything. We believe that by working together and making this a true state of Michigan plan versus just an MDOT infrastructure plan that it's not only MDOT that's going to be carrying these strategies forward but everyone. So, not only will our stakeholders hold MDOT accountable, but we at MDOT would like to hold one another accountable as well as we work together. The only way this plan will be implemented is if we work together through effective partnerships.

Cranson: And you feel like you've done that, and one of the things I know the plan talks about is the explanation of how, you know, revenue can grow Michigan’s economy and advance equity and help us adapt to climate change. I mean all those things are very much on our mind lately, especially after these torrential downpours in Detroit after, you know, the 2014 flooding event that people said then was like a 500-year event, you know. Here we are just six years later, seven years later, having similar events, so that building for sustainability and adapting to whatever's going on with the climate is really important too. How much emphasis and how often did that come up in your conversations across the state?

Sharlow: That came up quite often. One of the additional planning factors that was required through MAP-21 and the FAST Act, which are the current federal reauthorization bills, are resiliency and reliability. So, we added a whole section, and there's a chapter in the long-range plan that will focus on network resiliency and address the need to advance and modernize our infrastructure to be to be able to withstand these types of activities more. It involves not only just building the roads but also looking at the infrastructure around the roads to be able to handle this. So, we're having been quite a few conversations with folks like the Michigan Infrastructure Council, working internally with our folks in terms of understanding the need for maintenance on pump stations, but also understanding the whole drainage system and working with how water drains out when we have these torrential downpours. Yeah, we mentioned Detroit, but we had issues in Midland last year. We had issues up in Houghton about three years ago. I mean, this is happening all over the place, so we do have to work. Then the other discussion that was brought up is the whole shoreline erosion that we were seeing in 2020 in terms of what that's doing for shoreline roads as well as the tourism in the state of Michigan. So, it did come up quite substantially throughout this planned development.

Cranson: Yeah, that's a really good point. I mean, obviously, three weeks apart we had these major rains in Detroit at the end of June and then early July. Obviously, that consumed me, and I don't know how quickly I could forget that barely more than a year ago we had, yeah, a thousand-year flood event in Midland that breached dams and, you know, people are still recovering from. So, yeah, it's definitely not just Detroit. So, one of the things that is touted about this is there are some firsts both in terms of, you know, data collection, means of collecting data, but also that MM2045 is the first State Long-Range Transportation Plan in the country that fully integrates freight and rail plans into a combined long-range transportation plan. That's something to tout, I guess.

Sharlow: Absolutely, and yes, so this is the first long-range plan to fully incorporate all the federal requirements for a state freight plan and a state rail plan. In addition, we also are doing our first statewide active transportation plan and a statewide coordinated transit strategy. So yes, we're very pleased to be those that for the trailblazers here in the nation to really lead this effort. What has been really rewarding as a result of bringing all these together under one umbrella is getting these different groups to talk to one another as we form the vision, as we form these strategies to say, “Okay, if we word this particular strategy this way, what does that mean for each area?” Whereas, in the past, if we treat each of these kind of separately and do it, it's certainly easier to write the plan that way but then we lose a lot of that collaboration and discussion between different interest groups. So, it has been very challenging at times feeling like we're trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. In particular, for the freight rail plan they have very specific requirements that we have to adhere by, so you will see that those are all addressed. But yes, it's been very rewarding to do this, and we are very appreciative of everyone who's been involved in this effort to really come together with a true multimodal state of Michigan plan.

Cranson: So, you know, years ago this was called the State Highways Department, like it was in a lot of states. I mean, up until recently Nebraska was the Department of Roads. They changed the name in Michigan to the Michigan Department of Transportation quite some time ago, but a lot of people would say, advocates in the, you know, multimodal communities would say that we're still too highways focused, you know, too road and car focused. I know that you guys really put a lot of emphasis on multimodal integration in this planning and involving the groups that advocate for that. Do you feel like, as you look at the plan, you look to 2045, that we are going to be a more multi-modal society?

Sharlow: I believe, yes, we definitely will be. Frankly, we have to be because there are so many users of our network that are dependent on a multi-modal system in order to get from one place to another. It's a responsibility for us all to serve all users of the system and as much as we rely on our vehicles, not everyone can either afford to own a vehicle or legally operate a vehicle for whatever reason, so we need to ensure that we provide those choices for all users as a whole. The other things to look at, in general, as we discuss this, and the plan does to really try to discuss early on here when we talk about it is where each mode of transportation agrees they want to be at that vision by the year 2045. So, we show a diagram in the plan that shows the different modes of transportation that are going from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron. We showed a depiction, just more as a graphic, to show even though we all want to be to the east side of the state by 2045, we we're all at different points on that journey right now. So, the highway system is very mature. We're focusing more on preserving the system, maybe making a few operational enhancements, and then getting back to what we talked about earlier, focusing on modernizing it for new technologies and for resiliency. Whereas you look at the other modes and there are still some needs for expansion, in particular, for passenger rail, public transportation, passenger transportation, transit, and active transportation networks. We don't even have an inventory at this point of where all our active non-motorized transportation facilities are, much less understanding what condition they are in. So, even though we all want to get there, what we work on in the short term is to bring some of these other modes to catch them up in terms of data availability, in terms of just understanding what the network coverage is a huge challenge that we're going to be working through as part of the implementation of this plan.

Cranson: So, what does the data in your, I guess, your own crystal ball, your own instincts tell you about what future generations are going to want? Because I’ve said many times as we talked about passenger rail and the decision by Michigan to take federal money from the Obama stimulus to do the enhanced passenger rail between Chicago and Detroit that a lot of other states turned down because we thought that's the future. We think that younger generations think of connectivity as, you know, their phone and their devices. They don't have to drive if they can be on a on a bus or a streetcar or a train. But then we also see evidence and the skeptics will say, “Yeah, you know, young people say that, but as soon as they get married and have kids, you know, they move to the suburbs and then they want their cars.” So, what do what do you see? How does that break down in the future in Michigan?

Sharlow: You've really explained it pretty well there, Jeff. That is the conundrum that we see right now. We see a lot of the younger folks in their 20s gravitating to the urban areas where they don't have to own a vehicle, and they can get around through various choices. But then, yes, when they get married, settle down, and have families, you're right, many of them start to gravitate back towards the suburbs. A lot of that has to do with the quality of the school systems, but that's just my opinion. But in reality, there are more and more folks who are remaining in the cities now, even raising their families in those cities. I have some friends that live in the city of Ann Arbor or live in in downtown Detroit or others where they are raising their families and stuff like that, and they are able to find ways to manage without owning three vehicles in their home. They may instead of having a vehicle for each driver, they may choose to only have one vehicle and then to utilize other modes or rely on other services for the other trips. I think instead of it being sort of a complete switch from one extreme to the other, I think you're going to see more of a hybrid of maybe people owning less vehicles but relying on these other options for a portion of their trips.

Cranson: That goes to, you know, funding decisions too because, like you said, we're focused, MDOT has been focused for a long time on preservation and, you know, and asset management because that's all they can afford to be, given the chronic underfunding of transportation here. But if we make those changes, you know, we're still going to need the roads for trucks and for the people that still have cars, but there's going to be even more funding gaps if fewer people are driving, if people found out during the pandemic that they can tell telecommute, and, you know, we still rely on a gas tax, or user fees, to sustain the roads. So, how did that factor into your conversations?

Sharlow: Well, the big thing is the pandemic certainly threw a wrench into our forecast in terms of what we were initially anticipating, but what we did try to do here, overall, is really—at least in the short term, the purpose of a long-range plan, when it comes to long-term revenue, is to give more of a broader ballpark figure of kind of what our needs are going to be, not to get caught up on a specific number, but to understand what's the magnitude in terms of what our needs are going to be. So, all we could do right now is focus primarily on what we understand our existing revenues to be and how they're allocated, and then project out into the future based on what the costs are going to be to maintain that or to expand to meet those needs. So, essentially, we wound up pretty much showing in the document here that with everything that's being described we only have enough forecasted revenue to meet about half of the needs in order to achieve the vision of the plan. So, we, essentially, would need to double our program statewide regardless of mode, regardless of jurisdiction, regardless of who owns or operates, we're going to need to double the program in order to have a chance at meeting the vision. That was pretty alarming to see how big those numbers were, and we know that everything didn't get quantified down to the dollar and cent like we do usually for a short-term five-year program type of thing, but it does give you that magnitude.

Cranson: So, one of the things I noted was that the term supply chain has entered the common vernacular. It sounds like people are just more aware of what that means and probably just-in-time delivery and all the things that freight haulers and companies, you know, deal with and count on now. Talk about that in terms of the plan.

Sharlow: Yes, that was huge. Supply chain and really understanding the role of freight and how the supply chain industry has really been a good tool to help the general public understand. I mean, we have all these chip shortages for these trucks right now that we were having vehicles parked in MSU's commuter lot because they couldn't finish putting together the vehicles at the auto industries. How many people are trying to order laptops right now? There are chip shortages in terms of that. We dealt with toilet paper back at the beginning of the pandemic, and then there's other shortages in food supplies right now and other stuff like that that are coming. So, yes, supply chain really has been something that the public really understands more, and it has also helped them to understand and appreciate more of the needs of why we need a freight plan, and the freight component, to be central to our overall long-range plan as a whole.

Cranson: I’ll tell you something related to transportation that was short in the supply chain, it was kayaks, if you want to be fully multi-modal.

Sharlow: Exactly. Kayaks, bikes, I mean, boats, RVs.

Cranson: Yeah.

Sharlow: I mean, it sounds like there's everything out there right now. It's amazing. I was very fortunate to be able to purchase a new bike right when the stores reopened after the initial pandemic closures, but if I would have waited two months to get a new bike, I would have never got one.

Cranson: Yeah, many brands are still hard to come by.

Sharlow: Yeah, so, I mean, whether it's kayaks boats, whether it's bicycles, you name it. It's amazing what this has done to disrupt the whole supply chain industry at a global level.

Cranson: Well, Brad, this is a great overview. I’m going to encourage people to go to the show notes and go to the links for the actual plan and, you know, read it because there's a lot there. There's a lot of good infographics. I think the story is told in myriad ways and there's a lot people can glean from that. Is there anything else you want to add just for emphasis that people should know about MM2045?

Sharlow: Yeah, I guess really the big thing here is when it comes to moving forward in transportation, we all want to go get to the same place. So, I just encourage all of us as we move forward here to find ways to work together in terms of achieving this vision because we all want this vision. We all want a multi modal, safe, efficient, resilient, well-maintained and funded multimodal network that can get us and provide choices for all users of the system. So, that's really where we want to go, and we hope that people really embrace this plan and will work with each of your respective transportation providers over the next several years to help us as we work to implement this plan as a whole.

Cranson: I think that sums it up very well, Brad. Thanks for talking with us.

Sharlow: Yep, thank you. Appreciate it.

Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe to show notes and more, go to Apple podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.