Ask ELI: Grand River Ave. Speed Limits and Municipal Poop Digestion?

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

As your public service news organization, East Lansing Info offers a service we call Ask ELi to Investigate. You send us your questions about East Lansing, and we try to get them answered. Today, we bring you three reader questions from the mailbag.

“Greetings and thank you for all of your amazing journalism…I asked [the City] to look into reducing the speed limits on Saginaw and Grand River to their prior m.p.h.’s of 35 and 25, respectfully. With the [Glencairn] elementary school, Patriarche [Park], and bike lanes so close by, it is outrageous that these limits have been bumped up. About 15 years ago, they were 35 and 25, and it made a lot more sense. I know this is also a state issue, but we have relationships with the state we could be using.”

Within East Lansing, Saginaw St. and Grand River Ave. are state trunk lines. That means they are operated by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), which sets the speeds. 

There was a time when the City tried to fight the state-set speed limits. The first time that Mark Meadows was Mayor of East Lansing (1995-2006), the City brought suit against the state about these speed limits because the City Council believed the speed limits had been set too high by MDOT. The City claimed MDOT had to get the City’s consent on the speed limits.

After legal expenses that are said to have reached six-figures for East Lansing taxpayers (ELi has not requested the material that would show us the actual sums), the City of East Lansing lost the case at the Court of Appeals of Michigan in 2005. The court said the state alone has the right to set the limits.

East Lansing had (illegally) lowered the speed limits on Grand River Ave. between Frandor and downtown East Lansing, and ELPD officers used to camp out over there and wrote a lot of speeding tickets. After the lawsuit, the loss of that particular revenue corridor was palpable to the City’s budget. Some said the City should have refunded all the speeding fines paid along there, but that did not happen.

So, how does MDOT decide speed limits?

According to an FAQ from MDOT, “State law dictates that MDOT and the Michigan State Police jointly set speed limits that are based on the 85th percentile speed, which is the speed at or below which 85 percent of drivers are currently driving a given section of roadway. For example, if 85 percent of drivers on a section of road are driving 55 mph or less, the 85th percentile speed would be 55.”

The FAQ further explains, “Michigan uses this methodology because it is the national standard for setting speed limits, recognizing that the great majority of drivers instinctively drive at a speed that is safe and comfortable based on the roadway design and other factors. This also results in fewer conflicts between drivers, which lead to unsafe actions such as tailgating and improper passing.”

The City could try approaching MDOT about lowering the limits in these two corridors, but given state law and that the City sued and lost on this issue, it would seem a fairly pointless use of City staff’s time.

“Does East Lansing’s wastewater facility have an anaerobic biodigester, which would produce methane which could then power the facility? I can’t find evidence of one on the plant’s website. It seems like having one would be a great way to reduce the costs of treating waste water, by reducing power costs.”

East Lansing’s Water Resource Recovery Facility (WRRF), formerly known as the wastewater treatment plant, is in the final stages of construction of a “poop digester.” Back in March 2019, ELi reporter Jessy Gregg explained that the innovative system takes “biosolids” (poop) and uses bacteria to digest it, reducing the waste mass and producing usable methane for the plant. The reduction in the biosolids mass helps reduce the carbon footprint of trucking the remainder material to the landfill.

City of East Lansing

The anaerobic digester at East Lansing’s Water Resource Recovery Facility (wastewater treatment plant).

We asked now-Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg if she’d like to say anything about this, two years later. She answered:

“I do have a very dry follow up to the previous article, if you don’t mind. After the publication of that article there was some confusion about the effects of methane on the environment since methane is a significant contributor to the greenhouse gases that result in global warming.”

 She continued, “Decaying sewage material will produce methane whether it is in a digester or dumped in a landfill. Using a digester system to capture that methane and burn it as fuel means that that methane is not being released freely into the atmosphere, and burning methane as fuel produces significantly less CO2 than burning coal. Burning our own waste-produced methane also means that we are not relying on energy generation from mined natural gas.”

Diagram from Tetra Tech showing how East Lansing’s water resource recovery facility processes waste, with the digester circled in purple by ELi. Source.

“This continues to be one of the environmental stewardship projects that I am most excited about,” said Gregg.

When will it be operational?

Deputy Director of Public Works Nicole McPherson tells ELi, “The digester is not in operation yet. We are expecting to begin the initial testing phase of the digester and equipment in the next few weeks. The project is anticipated to be completed by June 2021.”

“What is going on with the cutting of trees in Burcham woods, behind ELHS? Who is making the decisions as to which trees to cut and are they qualified? Will they be leaving all the cut trees? What was the cost? I heard that the school had it done so a student won’t get hit by a falling tree, which sounds a little out there.”

The author of this question is asking about the ridge of trees that runs behind East Lansing High School. There is a path there that goes west, ending behind the public library. The trail marks a moraine left by the glacier that formed what is now East Lansing.

ELi Managing Editor Emily Joan Elliott covers the school district for us, so she asked Superintendent Dori Leyko to answer this reader’s questions. Leyko turned to ELPS Director of Finance Rich Pugh for help. Here’s what we got back:

“It is district property. We have trees (or branches) that are dead/unsafe (or too close to the building) cut down as there are a few trails back there. The trees are just left on the ground. Top Notch Tree Service was hired to do it.” 

We have sent in a follow-up question on the cost. In terms of the approach, leaving non-diseased fallen trees and branches is helpful to many forms of wildlife that use the material for habitat. It can also promote the growth of healthy flora.

We love getting your questions answered! Keep them coming.

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