Talking Michigan Transportation

MDOT wins federal grants to enhance rural transit, cross-border freight movement

March 23, 2023 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 5 Episode 137
Talking Michigan Transportation
MDOT wins federal grants to enhance rural transit, cross-border freight movement
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, some good news for innovative projects aimed at enhancing mobility.

On March 21, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) announced winners of Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) grants.

Michele Mueller, MDOT senior project manager for connected, automated, and electrification, joins the podcast to talk about a SMART grant award for $1.8 million to implement a proof of concept of a smart corridor for truck- borne goods traveling across the Blue Water Bridge, a vital international crossing between Port Huron, Mich., and Sarnia, Canada.

Later, Janet Geissler, mobility innovation specialist at MDOT, explain the details of another SMART grant, a $1.3 million award to advance rural mobility. There are 82 public transit agencies in Michigan, 60 of which serve rural areas.

These were among several projects receiving grants across the country.

Jeff Cranson:

Hi, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm your host, Jeff Cranson. The Michigan Department of Transportation received some exciting news this week from the federal government with the award of two grants. One to enhance efficiency for cross-border freight haulers and another to enhance rural mobility and transit technology. I'll be speaking first today with the project manager for the freight hauling initiative and later I'll speak with the MDOT staffer overseeing the rural mobility project. So again, our first guest is Michele Mueller, who is senior project manager at MDOT for Connected, Automated and Electrification. That means that she's got a lot in her umbrella and a lot of this is new stuff and she's been kind of learning on the fly but taking the lead on some of the most innovative things that MDOT and the state are doing when it comes to mobility. And, as mentioned earlier, we're going to talk today about a grant that was awarded this week from the federal government under the Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation program SMART. Federal government loves these acronyms for grants. So, Michele, thank you for taking time to be here and explain this and congratulations on winning the grant.

Michele Mueller:

Yeah, thank you very much. I'm super, super excited. We're happy, the team is ecstatic and really looking forward to getting started on the project. So you know, I think the key pieces, Jeff, to this project is, you know, it really pairs well with another corridor cross-border project we have going in partnership with Canada. That project actually has provided a bunch of stakeholder input. We've had over 100 stakeholders and walking through that we've worked to identify with those stakeholders challenges that exist at our borders. One of the things that really stood out in the conversations and those the stakeholder meetings is really looking at how we can move freight better across our borders. And one of the things we came up with when we had the opportunity for the SMART grant was to look at the Bluewater Bridge and to say how can we provide predictable arrival and processing times for the users, for our infrastructure operators and our border agencies all together? So we decided it would be a great opportunity to take advantage of the SMART grant and put in an application to do that. So the project looks at improving the movement on our westbound goods across Blue Water Bridge. So it will be those goods that are coming into the United States And then, you know, really focusing on sharing the information, setting up the digital platforms and data sharing, with all the different agencies at the table to say how can we share this information, how can we get it and how can we provide that data we get from the trucks in the trucking companies to provide to the agencies and customs, border patrol and MDOT for processing those through the trusted partner network.

Jeff Cranson:

So we start by looking, obviously, at a key corridor for international freight movement and the Blue Water Bridge is definitely that, and we hope that this can be applied at a broader level down the road. But explain what it means, because this is being called implementation of a proof of concept for a SMART corridor inn the most optimistic terms. Is it fair to say that, even if you think this doesn't matter to you because you don't drive a truck and you're not aware of what on time delivery means and those goods that you buy in the marketplace, that if you're just a regular commuter, a regular passenger vehicle user, that anything that expedites the movement of trucks also helps you?

Michele Mueller:

Oh, absolutely. So many, not everyone, but many of us have been in the situation of trying to cross the borders and as you come up on those borders you do see queues, and a lot of those queues you see from trucks and part of that really is around the fact that it takes longer to process them. They carry different types of goods, you know things like that where that processing time is just longer. So how is the opportunity to be able to move that quicker? You reduce those queues which sometimes those queues actually lead and start backing up passenger traffic as well. So if we can keep the vehicles moving at the crossings, we can reduce the congestion. The other piece is, even if you're not speaking of sitting in the queues at the border, you're still on the receiving end as a consumer. So a lot of the trucks that are carrying goods are goods that we consume. There are things you know vehicle parts, different types of technologies and manufacturing hardware those types of things that these trucks are carrying that are bringing services or parts to services or just to supplemental needs of lives, to actually enable the benefit to us as a consumer. So it can just be something not even related to how much time you're sitting someplace or waiting at the border, but really, movement of the goods, improving that slow, you know, and just getting the goods to us faster as users on the end.

Jeff Cranson:

So what does it mean to create efficiencies and rationalize resource allocation for U. S. Customs and Border Patrol as well as MDOT? Take that down for me.

Michele Mueller:

Yeah. So you know, as we start to look through this project is we want to be able to better understand how can we be more efficient in the processes that are happening. So there's certain things in plan today, in place that process the vehicles. They go through a certain process. So really taking those as a stakeholder team, because there's lots of agencies involved right, we have to make sure security stays in place, you know, and all of those are key and at the forefront. So really taking the group to sit down and dissect what those are and say how can we make these processes more efficient? What changes can we make? Are there things that can be happening prior to arrival, in addition to some of those that already happened today? But what else can we do to do that? And then also starting to look at, you know, as we see reductions and challenges and the people filling jobs you know it's existing at the borders too right, we're all trying to find staff. So, as we look to say, how can we look at the resources that we need and what can be done, maybe in a different way where it doesn't draw so much on the resource, and then even to the point where you do have people who you know may get sick right or something happens and they can't come into work. How can we have processes in place that actually make that burden and impact a little less so we can continue to maintain the level of service to our customers?

Jeff Cranson:

And that goes to a broader economic dilemma of our times that would take a whole nother podcast with some economists to sort out. But it is interesting that at the same time people are panicking over robotics and how technology is taking jobs. We can't find human beings to do the jobs that are open now. So, yeah, so this talks also about leveraging the existing information sources. So I mean, could you kind of explain what technology is being brought to bear here?

Michele Mueller:

Yeah, so one of the tasks that we'll do is part of this is really looking at what information is needed, right? So some of that is you know requirements, whether it's for security, whether it's for you know the loads they're carrying. There's lots of information that's transferred and used by different entities you know to process And then you know, even as you move past the processing, when you get into the inspection side of things is how, what is the information that exists today, what is needed And how can we maybe even look to simplify that and leverage things that are out there today that maybe we're not using? that could be an added benefit to reduction of these processes, processing time and being able to move the good quicker across the bridge.

Jeff Cranson:

Sounds like this is a significant leap forward. I mean, ever since 9-11, September 11, 2001, we've had to have increased security, increased inspections for freight going, you know, anywhere in the world, and those things have had an impact at our border crossings. And so these are some ways to mitigate some of the things that slowed us down because of that, because obviously nobody wants to cut back on the security, but we also want to, you know, clear the border as quickly as possible. Do you see this, I mean, I guess, what's your most optimistic hope for what we get coming out of this and a broader application.

Michele Mueller:

So my optimistic hope is we take the opportunity that we got through this grant for the Westbound you know traffic coming in it's just at Blue Water Bridge is that we get the teams together, the partners together from all you know, both the US, the Canadian side border patrol, all of the different groups and agencies that have a hand in that process and we get those together and we come together as a team and we figure out how to continue to meet our requirements right, keep things secure. We did like I said, we don't want that to change, but we need those, that group of people at the table, and then we all collectively talk and we go through the processes and we work collaboratively to figure out how can we do this better, what are ways and mechanisms to leverage things that maybe exist today, maybe things that don't exist today. And how do we do that collaboration to work and process this and put a place, something in place where we can actually make a difference. Right, we can move right faster, we can provide benefit to everyone. Essentially, we can deal with you know ups and downs of staffing issues, you know things like that and then be able to take this model and use it at our other crossing and work with those partners to enable this type, you know, system and what's created at those other crossings quite a few of those are in Michigan and then share that even with our external state agencies that have border crossings to say, hey, we've created this model, we've put this together here's all the details of what we worked out and be able to share that model forward, right? So we want to be collaborative in that and we want to be forward thinking and how we can do each of these processes and some of that will even be something just it's not just in the, the security clear inside of it, but also just in tolls, you know. So how can or is there ways that we can do the toll processing quicker? Because there's times where you can go to the borders and you can go right through. We all look, if you go to the borders, you're looking at, you know what are the times, what are the processing times and things, and we all track those. And what are ways that we can actually make that more efficient services and move people quicker, but not at the sacrifice of safety.

Jeff Cranson:

So I guess what needs to happen now and I mean the grant application talked about, stage one. What do you see as a realistic timeline?

Michele Mueller:

So the first step we have to do is we have to get the money from the federal government. Of course, we've already started that process and then what we will do is, when we bring that in, we'll set our contracts up with our partners and get those in place and then, once those contracts are in place, we'll start work, we'll get the teams together and you know, we will start the process to go through. Our needs assessment will be a large stakeholder outreach, which, again, we're very fortunate because we've got the stakeholders at the table already because of this cross-border project that we've been working on. So this is a true win coming out of the cross-border project that we have had underway for a little while now. We're actually pretty close to to finish with final deliverables. This is a win out of that. This is a group of people in two countries that have come together to identify and be realistic about what those challenges are and be at the table for discussion, and now we're moving to actual solutions to those challenges.

Jeff Cranson:

So super exciting time oh yeah, I mean, given the the needs and you know canada's importance as a trading partner to michigan and vice versa the whole reason that we're building another crossing in Detroit, the Gordie Howe International Bridge, and the whole reason that some years back we added a second span to the Blue Water bridge is because of that not just passengers but freight obviously is very important. So, I don't know what else would you want people to know about this?

Michele Mueller:

I really, at this point, not too much. We need to get like I said, we need to get the contracts in place and we need to get kicked off. I would encourage folks to watch the progress. We will be having information shared out of the cross-border that identifies other challenges and we'll be providing opportunities and looking for funding sources for those as well. I think it's a time and we're in a place where you know our federal partners and our Canadian partners were super excited for us that we got the grants, which really shows that the relationships are there. You know we spend a lot of time, we collaborate well and we, you know, do very well at moving between countries, which not every state can say. So really proud of Michigan and the efforts that our border folks have put forward in this and our crossing, and now we have the opportunity to enable, with some grant funding and technology to help them.

Jeff Cranson:

So I guess this is a reality check. You're saying that when the federal government, US DOT, makes a grant announcement, they're not depositing the money in an account the same day, doesn't work that way?

Michele Mueller:

Correct, it does not work that way. Unfortunately, it does not work that way.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, well, thank you, Michele. This is helpful and good luck going forward and again, congratulations on a successful grant application.

Michele Mueller:

All right, thank you very much, Jeff, I appreciate it.

Jeff Cranson:

Please stay tuned. We'll be back with more talking Michigan transportation right after this.

Michele Mueller:

Know before you go, head on over to MiDrive to check out the latest on road construction and possible delays along your route. For a detailed map, head over to Michigan. gov/drive.

Jeff Cranson:

So we are back and, as promised, our second guest this week is Janet Geisler, who is a mobility innovation specialist at the Michigan Department of Transportation and was instrumental in writing the application for the other grant that MDOT won this one for about $1.3 million for transit innovations. Janet, thanks for taking time to be here, and can you tell us what this grant will mean?

Janet Geisler:

Sure. This grant is called the Advancing Rural Mobility Michigan Public Transit Open Data Standards Program, and that's kind of highly technical, so let me break that down a little bit for what it actually means. Technology is becoming very popular in the transit community, both to improve transit operations and also to make transit more accessible to the public. If you are, for example, in the city of Detroit and want to go from point A to point B, there are a number of apps that you can use on your phone or computer, programs where you can plug in where you wanna travel and they will show you information about go to this bus stop and this is what time the bus shows up and this is the route. That information all comes from something called the General Transit Feed Specifications, or GTFS, and that is a set of data that is generated and maintained in what's called open data standards. That's a common format that everybody has agreed to use that allows the software to pull in that data from the Detroit Department of Transportation to create the information that is then shared to the public. So that's something that's available primarily with large urban agencies, systems that have fixed routes. Now Michigan has about 60 transit agencies that are rural agencies and they don't have fixed routes for the most part, so GTFS is not a tool that they can use. So what this grant will do, it will explore some evolving technologies. There's something called GTFS Flex, g-o-f-s, which is General On-Demand Feed Specifications things that might be more useful to the rural providers that provide demand response service to help them integrate, to generate their data so that it can then be used by similar trip planning applications.

Jeff Cranson:

So I noticed that in the application. I think that's interesting. I would guess that a lot of people don't know about the rural agencies. And you think of public transit in Michigan you think of Detroit and Grand Rapids and Lansing and Flint and the big cities, and of the 82 public transit agencies you're saying, basically 60 serve rural areas, and that's often where the aging population is. So it's probably more vital than ever. Is that the simplest way to explain why we're going after this grant just for these populations?

Janet Geisler:

Yeah, even though the highest concentration of people may be in urban areas, a lot of Michigan is rural communities And those include a lot of people who are low income, who are, as you said, senior citizens, people who really rely on public transit to access all the features to make their lives productive, but whether it's a job, whether it's education, whether it's healthcare, whether it's shopping, so transit is really an important tool for them to live productive lives and we're looking for ways to make that more accessible to them.

Jeff Cranson:

So talk about those four agencies that are partners, and I know that that's probably something that the US Department of Transportation took kindly to. They like the idea that you have partner agencies that would be part of a stage one in this program. Can you talk about how those were selected?

Janet Geisler:

Sure, the four agencies that we'll be working with in the pilot stage of this are the agencies in Benzie, Charlevoix, Cadillac-Wexford and Rosc ommon. Last year our office did a statewide rural transit technology assessment where we surveyed all the rural transit agencies throughout the state to determine their current level of technology literacy and adoption. What are the tools that they are most interested in acquiring? How comfortable are they with technology? All these sorts of things that will help us then prioritize how we spend our transit dollars. The four agencies in this pilot were identified as agencies that are pretty tech savvy already. They would be interested in working on this with us. They also include some of the disadvantaged populations that the federal grant is seeking to benefit with these types of programs.

Jeff Cranson:

So I guess, in your most optimistic view, what would you hope to learn coming out of this and how do you think it could soon, you know improve the quality of life for the people in these service areas?

Janet Geisler:

The SMART grant is a two-stage program. The first stage, which is the grant that we received, is for piloting and planning these technologies. The recipients who get stage one grants are then eligible to apply for a stage two grant later, which would be implementation. So in stage one we will be doing this pilot. We will then apply for stage two, which will allow us to implement it statewide to all the transit agencies in the state where we are eventually hoping to go with all of this, we are in the process of developing a statewide mobility as a service platform or a MOS platform, and what that is; it would be a single platform, like an app on your smartphone that you could call up, type in where you are, where you want to go, and it will show you all of the transportation options to enable you to complete that trip. At a minimum. it will identify who those providers are and let you know how to get in touch with them. At a higher level, depending upon each of those transportation providers' capabilities and what technology they have implemented, it may enable you to plan the trip, book the trip and pay for the trip all within that app. The GTFS data and tools that we are developing through this SMART grant are the things that will feed into that MOS platform to enable people to see all that information.

Jeff Cranson:

Well, it sounds like the best thing that can come out of this is just the real-time information, but if you are tracking this on your phone, you can find out where it is and how soon it can be there. I mean, that is what everybody wants, right? It is the impatience that makes these things difficult.

Janet Geisler:

Right. Now, not every agency is going to have that kind of capacity available, but that is for the ones that do have that would be part of the app.

Jeff Cranson:

Where else do you see? I mean, as you say, the partners in this first round would be successful and then have the opportunity to apply in a second round beyond the four transit agencies you mentioned. You could see this probably extending further north in the lower peninsula and then probably being of use in some upper peninsula counties too.

Janet Geisler:

It would be statewide, it would be throughout the whole state.

Jeff Cranson:

What else talk a little bit about your title. You've kind of evolved into this from doing other things in the passenger transportation area at MDOT. I know you've said you're really excited about what you're doing right now and kind of being on the cutting edge of a lot of these new technologies and a lot of ways to help people with mobility. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Janet Geisler:

Sure, we got started down this path back in 2018 as part of the $8 million Michigan mobility challenge, which was an initiative conceived by Governor Snyder that would use emerging technology to improve mobility for seniors, persons with disabilities and veterans, and 13 grants were awarded to different projects all over the state, testing all different kinds of technology from mobile apps, automated wheelchair securements, an autonomous shuttle vehicle indoor way finding a bunch of really interesting projects, and we recognized how this really can benefit people and we wanted to do more of these sorts of things. So we created the position that I've moved into to take charge of these things and explore all these different technologies and try to get them deployed at transit agencies around the state.

Jeff Cranson:

That's a really exciting time to be in mobility and in transit, so I appreciate you taking time to explain it and you're doing important work. So thank you. I'd like to thank you once more for tuning in to Talking Michigan Transportation. You can find show notes and more on Apple Podcasts or Buzzsprout. I also want to acknowledge the talented people who help make this a reality each week, starting with Randy Debler, who skillfully edits the audio, Jesse Ball, who proofs the content, Courtney Bates, who posts the podcast of various platforms, and Jacke Salinas, who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.

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Michigan Mobility Challenge and Emerging Technology