Talking Michigan Transportation

A pioneering agreement between Michigan and federal government for national parks

April 20, 2022 Season 4 Episode 101
Talking Michigan Transportation
A pioneering agreement between Michigan and federal government for national parks
Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, conversations with two State of Michigan officials about the announcement of an agreement with the National Park Service (NPS) to work together and develop programs for more sustainable and equitable travel to NPS lands. 

The announcement coincided with other Earth Week events across the state and featured a visit from Charles F. Sams III, who was sworn in Dec. 16, 2021, as NPS director, the first tribal citizen to lead the service in its 106-year history. 

(Video story of the event.) 

First, Trevor Pawl, Michigan’s chief mobility officer, explains the potential opportunities from the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) announced Tuesday, April 19, between NPS and several state departments. 

Some of the possibilities include installing more charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, something NPS has already begun

Later, Jean Ruestman, who directs MDOT’s Office of Passenger Transportation and a key player in developing the MOU, joins the podcast to talk about the potential to provide broader accessibility to the parks. 

She also explains how the Michigan Mobility Challenge, highlighted by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2019, could provide a model for inspiring ideas to increase access to the national parks.

Podcast photo: Morning fog in Yellowstone River Valley. National Park Service photo by Neal Herbert.


Trevor Pawl [recording]: Together we'll be rolling out innovative mobility technologies and services to fight back against rising emissions, rising congestion, connectivity challenges, and transit challenges. 


Jeff Cranson: So, that was Trevor Pawl, Michigan's Chief Mobility Officer, kicking off an event this week, actually on Tuesday, April 19th, to celebrate a Memorandum of Understanding being agreed to by several Michigan state departments and the National Park Service that will allow lots of new opportunities for the possible testing deployment of electric transit vehicles, other ways to provide better access to our national parks, cut down on emissions because of what we're seeing in terms of recreation coming out of the pandemic and people's desire to get out there, which is a great thing. And trying to enjoy the national parks which are treasures in our country. And we have several in Michigan, most notably Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, that people just love and see thousands of visitors every summer. So, today on the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, we're going to talk with Trevor about this Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, and what it means. And later, we'll talk to Jean Ruestman, who is the administrator of MDOT's Office of Passenger Transportation. And she's been working behind the scenes with the National Park Service and others to bring this whole thing to fruition. But first, repeat visitor to the podcast, always happy to have you and your enthusiasm. And you are so bullish on mobility, and what it means to Michigan and Michigan’s future. And I love it because I agree and share your optimism and enthusiasm. Thank you for taking time to be here again. 

Pawl: Thank you for having me Mr.—Dr. Cranson, sorry. 

Cranson: [laughing] Doctor? So, talk about what yesterday's event really means. I mean, it's hard to be real specific, and some of the reporters struggled with that a little bit because this is—it's an MOU, it's the beginning, it's setting the stage for exploration and opportunities. And we all want to be able to say something more specific, offer something tangible, but I think you explained it pretty well. And what this launches, I guess. 

Pawl: It's a first of its kind partnership, so there's not a template or recipe for how to engage stakeholders in and around national parks. And even the different teams within the national parks and different teams in the state of Michigan. We felt it was important to sort of plant the flag, to say, Michigan and national parks, we understand that emissions, congestion, accessibility, are increasingly difficult challenges. And by letting the public know that we've heard them, and that now we are working together on solutions and want to involve the public and want to involve local stakeholders as we identify a first round of projects, felt like the right communication approach. And I think when you hear about a partnership with the national parks, you can't decouple that with the rural communities, areas around that park, that face unique challenges as a result of tourism: peak seasons, off seasons, and other things, environmental impacts. And so when we think about this partnership, yes, it's with the parks, but it's also with the regions where the parks are located. And that's what's real exciting. 

Cranson: Yeah and maybe— 

Pawl: And then. Oh, sorry go ahead. 

Cranson: Oh I’m sorry, I thought you were done. 

Pawl: Oh no, I had like a big grand finale and then… 

Cranson: Oh geez, well by all means, I want to hear it. 

Pawl: [laughing] Jeff, all I was going to say is, I mean, the other aspect of it is helping more folks get to the parks and have those life-changing experiences that so many of us have had either as kids or as adults. Where you do really realize, you know, why you live in a place or why you visit a place. There's a certain magic to these parks, and so leveraging, you mentioned—or I guess, I mentioned it in my opening remarks, but you mentioned getting Jean Ruestman in the Office of Passenger Transportation involved, and that's going to be a big part of this, too, is making sure that we can find affordable, equitable, accessible solutions for folks all over Michigan, and all over the Midwest to visit our national parks. And you know, the thing is, and maybe we didn't hit on this enough because we are waiting to determine what the specifics will be, but ideally, if something works in Michigan, we want it to be rolled out all over the country. I want to see something at Pictured Rocks and then a year later go to Acadia or Smoky Mountains or Death Valley and see the same thing. And that’s really the vision for the National Park Service that I think is extremely cool.  

Cranson: Absolutely, and I think that that's one of the things people yesterday struggled with a little bit is, how does the accessibility part of it work. And in its simplest form, we've got rural transit agencies in those counties where the national parks are. And it would be about partnering with them and helping enable them to make more stops or more runs to those parks and help get people there who, as you said, might not otherwise get there, either because of a disability or because of a transportation challenge or for whatever reason. Is there more meat you can put on those bones? 

Pawl: Yeah, I think you hit on a larger idea; we're not looking to rewrite trans systems with this partnership, we're looking to overlay what already is happening. I think it's about empowering the assets, the partners, the infrastructure, the services that we have. And I think of audiences that have traditionally had barriers accessing the outdoors—I think of the elderly. I think, even like moms with strollers, or dads with strollers, young families. I do think of folks downstate in Detroit that never, or that maybe don't own a car, or just maybe it seems cost prohibitive to visit a park, to visit northern Michigan. This is an opportunity there. But the thing is, I don't want to be prescriptive, I don't want to over engineer the solution before our team dives into the problem a bit more. Which is why I think we're, again, making this an announcement, planting the flag, saying, Michigan, National Park Service, we want to be the test bed for the solutions that are going to carry our national parks and the next generation. But first, we got to understand what it means, because that's a pretty big responsibility that we take very seriously. 

Cranson: So let's hear from Director Sams of the National Park Service, who was in Michigan for this great honor to host him, and he had some nice things to say. So let's hear a little bit of what that was. 

Director Sams [recording]: The central challenge of developing and managing the National Park System is often, again, that access and protecting. But two of our parks in Michigan have seen an incredible increase in visitors over the last 10 years. Sleeping Bear Dunes visitation has grown by 30 percent, and visitation to Pictured Rocks in the U.P. has increased over 130 percent in the last decade. 

Cranson: You got to meet him and sense his passion for this, and I think he explained why he thought it was a cool thing to roll out in Michigan. But that probably is a big question for a lot of people, I mean, you and I think, well, of course, we're the state that put the world on wheels, you can't say it too many times. But is there more than that? What made Michigan an attractive pilot for this? 

Pawl: Well, I think that the National Park Service director, which, by the way, this is really cool; he's the first tribally enrolled member to be the director of the National Park Service in 106 years. I just I love that. 

Cranson: Yeah. 

Pawl: So, there's a couple ways to look at this, right. The National Park Service, when it was formed in 1916, was not a popular idea. We had national parks already. To some, it seemed like an additional level of bureaucracy that we didn't necessarily need. But it was the early acceptance by the first director, Director Mather, of the automobile that allowed the National Park Service to be seen by more Americans. Actually, and I said this in my remarks, but I’m not sure of a more consequential decision as it relates to the trajectory of the parks than allowing for automobiles to enter, but also investing in the infrastructure required from paved roads to pullouts. It created the freedom that you need to maximize your experience. To say, okay, I understand why we need a national park system, and we need to invest in the national park system in our country. 

Cranson: And that was mostly for the better, but some people would say for the worse. 

Pawl: Well…yeah. I think because you've swelled from about a million annual visitors in 1920 to about 300 million in 2021, you're now seeing the limitations of infrastructure. In Michigan, we're fortunate to have a lot of flat land. So if we add a lane, not too many people will notice, on occasion. But when you go to a place like Denali, or other places that have these different landscapes, it's tough to add infrastructure. And I think that's where we're running into issues with the car. And the thing is, cars made the National Park Service a destination. But now that they are a destination, I think we need to understand that we're in a different phase of the history of the system. And now we need to, even though maybe you and I are used to taking our internal combustion engine vehicles through the scenic drives and turnouts and different things, we may need to now think about, okay, if it means that I can preserve the park for my kids, would I be comfortable with a micro mobility solution or a shuttle service or something else? And then I think in terms of the auto and the new auto industry, some of these autonomous connected shared electric technologies can really be game breakers for efficiency. So being able to understand where the open parking space is going to be before I arrive at that space. Leveraging software in new ways, and frankly, improving digital connectivity at national parks, that can be an automotive led conversation. 

Cranson: So you don't think it's good for the environment to drive around a parking lot for an hour before you find a space?  

Pawl: Yeah, I don't think it's good for the environment, Jeff, unfortunately. So, I guess to summarize what I just said, I think that cars traditionally have been a positive for national parks because they brought people there to appreciate them in masses. However, we're now at a place where we need to think about the future being multimodal for national parks, and we need to do it in a responsible way that doesn't drive people away or hurt local communities. Secondly, the new auto industries, 50 percent of the valuable vehicle will be software by 2030. And so, the automotive industry is very much a software industry, and how can we leverage these digital platforms to improve the transportation experience at these national treasures and the communities around them. So there are two different opportunities here that I think we can capitalize on with this partnership.  

Cranson: That's really well said, and it definitely is a good meeting point for all of the things you and the Office of Future Mobility and Electrification are working on. The park service has already piloted some electric charging infrastructure, trying to add more of it and make that available which, obviously, will make them a better destination for electric vehicles, some of the same things we want to do at the state level with infrastructure. So talk about where we're at with that overall. And it fits into this, too, but where are we going with electric vehicles? It's still multiplying exponentially, but you've still got people concerned about range anxiety, and you've got those of us concerned about how we're going to pay for the roads if we don't have people using gas anymore, which is a good thing for the environment, but it's also not sustainable if we're going to maintain pavement. So, give me your thoughts. 

Pawl: [laughing] Wow, that's kind of a big question, Jeff. Alright, so here's what I got. There's a cross-functional team, I would say some of the most talented people in government are working on this project. Obviously, we have federal infrastructure dollars coming in, we've restructured state government to optimize the spend and be responsible with the concepts we're proposing for charging stations and other sort of infrastructure improvements. But we now have a Chief Infrastructure Officer, Zach Kolodin, in an Office of Infrastructure inside the governor's office, helping to navigate and shepherd how those funds should be spent. Part of that money will be focused on charging infrastructure to the tune of 110 million dollars. And so, right now, we're working with the existing Charge Up Michigan program, which installs our EV stations all over the state that aren't installed by the private sector. And the goal is still to create a worry-free DC charger, fast charger network for easy seamless electric vehicle travel by 2030, and we're already hundreds of chargers into that. Now, with this infusion, this large funding infusion, we want to make sure that along our most strategic corridors, which are the interstates and in areas that can potentially create range anxiety to travel to, such as a national park, that were covered. So someone, say, wants to drive from Troy, Michigan or Detroit, Michigan up to Traverse City, or up to Pictured Rocks, or Sleeping Bear, will not have to worry in a few years, and maybe even sooner, about charging. That is an ultimate goal of ours, and frankly, it's a big goal for our tourism industry, too, which is why we're focusing on signature EV routes that may not be I-75 in terms of density but are very important to the communities and the people that visit, for instance, the shores of Lake Michigan. So the governor announced a Lake Michigan electric vehicle circuit, which would be a reliable route with charging stations that have similar experiences when you stop and are consistently located on the map in places that make sense and help the community but also help the driver. So we're, also I should add, too, we're not just looking at charging for personal vehicles; we understand it needs to be a business solution. We need to service our trucking industry, our fleet operators. And I think what Eagle’s doing with their fleet transition program and the dollars dedicated towards helping diesel fleets, trucks, equipment, buses, boats transition to electric is also part of the story as it relates to charging infrastructure. And frankly, so is our transit authorities and that transition we need to make to electric buses, which, again, if we're truly focused on this National Park Service partnership being about electrification, we need to focus on electric transit solutions. Many, many different facets to that conversation, Jeff, so I tried to give you as many as I could and as abbreviated of an answer as I could. I don't think that was very abbreviated, though, so I apologize.  

Cranson: Oh no, as always, it was very well said, very eloquent, very helpful. And I think that something that wasn't mentioned yesterday but we should point out was the proximity of this event and all these developments that we're talking about to Earth Day. So that's kind of a cool coincidence, too.

 Pawl: Yeah, that's right. Celebrate earth.  

Cranson: Yeah. 

Pawl: We got, there's some cool things going on this week, Jeff. The state, I mean, there's going to be a couple of cool announcements later this week: governor’s at the tourism conference, I know lieutenant governor's talking about electric vehicles today or this week, we had our national park service announcement. Michigan’s active, like on the national stage, we're doing a lot. You don't always notice it when your head's down, but when you begin to look what other states are doing, we're moving, man. It's a good spot to be in Michigan if you're focused on changing the world. 

Cranson: It is, and it's all triple bottom line stuff, too. I mean, these are important jobs; our biggest employers, our biggest industries, have said this is where we're going to stake our future. And government, several departments doing everything, the governor and certainly MDOT, certainly your office, Eagle, DNR doing everything they can to support what those industries want to do. And it has the added benefit of being great for our planet and our climate, so it's all good. 

Pawl: All good. 

Cranson: Thank you, Trevor, for taking time to do this. I appreciate it as always.  

Pawl: Of course, yeah, Jeff, always have me. I know that I’m relevant when I keep getting asked to come back. So this appearance on your show is very timed and coordinated with, I feel like, the value I’m bringing to my job. So thank you for having me. 

Cranson: [laughing] Yes, we measure our relevance by appearances on podcasts. I'll be back in just a minute with Jean Ruestman of MDOT's Office of Passenger Transportation, who also had a lot to do with this important announcement. Stay with us, we'll have more on the other side of this important message. 

Narrator: [Car honking] Know before you go. Head on over to Mi Drive to check out the latest on road construction and possible delays along your route. For a detailed map, head over to 

Cranson: So I'm happy to welcome Jean Ruestman back to the podcast. Jean is the administrator of the Office of Passenger Transportation at MDOT and played a key role in bringing this MOU to fruition. You heard earlier Trevor Pawl, the Office of Future Mobility and Electrification Head Chief Mobility Officer for the state, talk kind of high level about what this agreement with the National Park Service means. Jean can talk more specifically about MDOT's role and the possibilities that this creates. Again, there's a lot of specifics that aren't known, but we know that this enables some creative thinking and perhaps spurs some other initiatives. So Jean, thanks for taking time to do this. Tell us your overview of yesterday's announcement and what it means. 

Jean Ruestman: Yeah, I would love to. I'm really excited about yesterday's announcement. I'm always excited when there are partnerships, and this partnership is incredibly unique to us. National Park Service, DNR, OFME, MDOT; we don’t always get opportunities to partner. And we know that with the new mobility, with technology and innovation, that is all about partnerships. And the fact that we can be part of this partnership to bring some of our goals in line with National Park Service—they really want people to be able to access the park, to not create a lot of congestion, to not be a negative impact on the environment, and those are all things that are the same goals as MDOT, and especially Office of Passenger Transportation. Across the state, we really focus on providing mobility to people, to the places they need to go, and the places they simply want to go, like national parks. I mean, what's better for your health and your well-being than just visiting a beautiful national park? And if we can help bring people to the parks in a way that doesn't have a negative impact on the environment, in a way that doesn't have a negative impact on other people via congestion, and brings that opportunity to everyone in the state. Whether you have a car and just are choosing not to use it, or you want to just drive close and maybe take a shared mobility source like a public transit bus in. And if you are disabled in any way, if you need a mobility device, taking a public transit bus into these state parks is, I just think, a hugely freeing thing to do. It gives you that freedom back and helps you access some of these incredible resources we have in our state. 

Cranson: Yeah, it really fits well with the concept of access for all. And I think that this is government at its best. I mean, your office plays largely an administrative regulatory role because of all the federal money and state money that you administer and that you have to watch over. And this kind of thing isn't really called for anywhere in any policy documents, and it's a chance for you to think creatively about how to be helpful. And that's obviously what happened when you were first approached about this. And it creates something new and exciting that you and your office can do and kind of sink your teeth into. So, talk about that a little bit—about how it kind of stokes your fires. 

Ruestman: Oh, this excites me to no end, Jeff. This is what I’ve been, I’ve been in this role for a little over three years now, and I’ve really tried to bring more technology and innovation and inclusiveness to the public transit industry in Michigan. To work with the other people who have a passion for transit like I do, and make sure those benefits can be experienced by everyone. That it’s done in an equitable way, an inclusive way, and accessible under many different definitions. That we can use technology and innovation to make sure people who are maybe in areas of persistent poverty can afford to reach these the parks. As I said before, people who maybe are in a wheelchair or have a visual disability, that they can also access the parks. And I think it's great when state and federal agencies are willing to take on some of that risk that's involved with trying something new, something innovative. It's risky for a local transit agency or a local community to do, and if the state and federal government can partner together and help alleviate that risk, so we can learn how to do this the right way, and so we can bring huge benefits to multiple populations throughout our state. It's really exciting, and I think everybody who's involved in public transit, we've often said, to stay in public transit you have to have a passion for it. You're not here to get rich, you're here because you love to help people, because you want to see them have the services they need to really enjoy a full life. So, this opportunity is just, it's icing on the cake, right. We get to partner with great organizations, and we get to bring improved mobility services to people throughout our state.  

Cranson: Yeah, not only is it just really hard-working kind of a grind behind the scenes, departments across the country, USDOT of course, and then all the state DOTs; there's always a feeling that you're kind of an afterthought because people think of roads first, obviously. 

Ruestman: Yes, they do. We often feel like an afterthought, but I will tell you that's the other exciting thing about new mobility, about technology, and all of the new entrants into the mobility scene. We've got a lot more private companies, along with the public entities, providing this service. And I have partnered more with the highway side of our department in the last three years than I have in my entire 30-plus year career at MDOT. That's really exciting, that we're not just partnering with other departments, that we're actually looking within our department. And seeing that relationship with, you know, we are all mobility options, whether it's a highway, or a bridge, or a public transit bus, or a train, or a ferry boat. We are all part of one mobility ecosystem. And the fact that we've all kind of realized that and had this reawakening of what true coordination means when it comes to access for all and mobility for all. 

Cranson: Yeah, that's a really cool thing. And if you think about it, you've been talking about doing those kinds of things really starting with the mobility challenge, which was a great success; it was a case of government putting forward some seed money to incentivize some of that innovation, get some private sector people to try some new things. And you know, that worked out really well, and I think that is a bit of the catalyst, or at least the seeds of the ideas for what could come out of this, right? 

Ruestman: Absolutely. That really taught us a lot about how to implement innovative, technology driven projects—how to prepare for them, because with that, the 8 million Michigan mobility challenge, we tried something new, and it worked great. And that was bringing partners together, potential partners together, just to learn about each other. And I think that's what we'll do with this, and especially under this MOU. The first phase will be about getting to know what the problems are, where are the mobility gaps, where are the opportunities, and then what partners can we bring together to help work together? Private industry, public entities, stakeholders, users—to put together what I’m hoping will be some really creative solutions. And that challenge really did pave the path for this; we learned so much from that. And we'll definitely use those learnings in this one to come up with some exciting potential solutions to providing that great service to the parks. 

Cranson: So where do we go from here; what do you think is next? 

Ruestman: So, I think next is just sort of sitting back and taking stock of who the stakeholders are. We need to identify who's going to be impacted, who has an interest in the national parks, and access to the national parks. And then identifying those stakeholders, setting up a meeting, so we can start kind of brainstorming on the solutions, on how we go about issuing this challenge that will help us then start providing solutions. So, I know that people behind the scenes have already started trying to find dates to have the first meeting and start identifying partners and stakeholders, and we're ready to hit the ground running on this. 

Cranson: That's awesome. I think the excitement in the room, you know, director Charles Sams of the National Park Service, Trevor, of course, who's always very enthusiastic, but Susan Corbin, the Director at LEO, our director Ajegba, obviously, and everybody that was there to witness this, I think had that collective sense of, this is really cool, and it's something that's happening in Michigan. And everybody should be interested in and see the potential benefits, so. 

 Ruestman: Absolutely. 

Cranson: So, thank you for taking time to talk about this and explain it. I guess, real quickly, on another issue related to transit that I know you're following; what are you hearing about the judge's ruling on masked mandates, and how that's being received by the local agencies you work with across the state? 

Ruestman: So, it's being received with some level of caution, a little bit of confusion. It changed so quickly. And there's a fear that they will stop requiring masks and then suddenly be ordered to require them again. But on the other hand, it's a burden or enforcement that comes off from the transit agencies. But there's still some fear about public health, and about the health of their drivers. So, it's very mixed emotions out there about how to implement this, how to keep their drivers safe, but how to make sure that riders come back and ride public transit and feel safe doing so. So, I think it's going to take a few beats to really come up with plans locally and how they're going to make this change. But I know they'll adapt; I know they'll be able to do it, and they'll decide locally what's best for their citizens and the best way to implement the change. 

Cranson: Yeah, I think you raise a good point, though, that it is a dilemma. I mean, the people on the front lines who have to, if not outright enforce it, at least try to quietly encourage people or nudge people, are certainly tired of having to do that. But at the same time, if you are the driver, and you're the one that's exposed to people in this close proximity in what might not be the best ventilated space, it's got to be concerning. And I heard a number of people the past couple days talking about airline travel, and how they're going to continue to wear masks because most of us who've ever traveled any distance, especially if you've gone overseas, you get used to getting off the plane and suddenly you've got the sniffles, right?

 Ruestman: Right. 

Cranson: Because you got a cold because of who you were with, and because of the germs in the air, and the masks have greatly limited that. 

Ruestman: They have. Jeff, you know, I was just talking to a good friend who has been so careful about masks. And during COVID, she was at an event and was still trying to be kind of careful, but it loosened a little bit—got a horrible cold. I mean, and that's what you know we're trying to warn everybody is like, okay, realize this protected you not just from COVID, but from the flu, from the cold, from strep throat, from all these other things. And so, what we really want to make sure we do, is that we remove the stigma related to wearing a mask. That if you still want to wear a mask because it helps protect your health, you should not feel any stigma when you make that choice. So, people don't have to wear masks, they're not going to be forced to wear a mask. But if you wear a mask, you should feel okay about that. And if a driver chooses to continue wearing masks, that is absolutely okay. 

Cranson: Yeah, I think there's a time we used to think when you saw people in masks in airports that they were probably just medically fragile, and as it turns out they were just really smart.

 Ruestman: [laughing] Yes, yeah, absolutely. I think we've all learned a lot about protecting our health. Who doesn't now sing happy birthday or one of those songs when you're washing your hands to make sure you do the full 20 seconds washing your hands, and careful about touching your face. And wearing masks is just one of those things now. It shouldn't be seen as an oddity; it should be seen as simply a way that people try and stay healthy during times when they're exposed to a lot of germs. 

Cranson: Yeah, very well said. Well thank you, Jean, and good luck as the MOU moves forward with the National Park Service. We'll be talking about it more, I'm sure. 

Ruestman: Sounds great, thank you very much, Jeff. 


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.