Austin turns in Smart City Challenge application
Competition offers chance for collaboration between cities, private sector
When the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) announced its Smart City Challenge in December 2015, about 50 cities nationwide entered the competition. It seemed like a great opportunity: $40 million from the federal government to address transportation problems by using technology, another $10 million from Vulcan Inc. and the promise of a lot of good press and marketing opportunities, if nothing else.
Austin transportation officials thought so, at least. They entered the competition, and the city was named one of seven finalists, along with Columbus, Ohio; Denver; Kansas City, Mo.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Portland, Ore.; and San Francisco.
Even the promise of $50 million, though, won’t get a city too far in the world of transportation infrastructure. But, the challenge isn’t designed to fund new road construction or the implementation of a new light-rail line. It is designed to initiate pilot programs that will introduce technology into the transportation system, according to Rob Spillar (pictured), of the Austin Transportation Department.
The goal of the challenge is to ask, “How do we address deficiencies in the system with modern technology?” he says. And, the goal for Austin’s plan is to address deficiencies in how the city offers social services to its residents. He goes on to enumerate those issues: the digital divide, jobs, affordable housing.
“This grant has really opened my eyes to the partnerships we can work with. Just getting ready for this grant process has had a great influence on my understanding of how we can provide social services.”
One such idea is the formation of a transportation club that could function as a sort of van pool. Riders would join, meet at a central location (a park-and-ride facility, say) and the first one there would be the driver. The vans would be provided by the public agency, but everything else would be arranged privately. The cost of the van would be the only charge to the city.
“But that’s a capital expense, which is a lot easier than an ongoing expense,” explains Spillar.
The types of pilot programs that could be funded by the Smart City Challenge grants will be designed to open access to different forms of transportation to the entire population, which will expand opportunities for those populations in terms of the jobs and services available to them. That includes an app that would integrate all of the various forms of transportation on offer in Austin: ridesharing companies, the Metrorail train service, taxi cabs, rental car companies and others.
Spillar likens it to travel apps that compare prices from different companies and services: hotels, rental cars, airfares.
Other benefits of the process have come from the fact that subsequent interest from the private sector has increased the total amounts of the grants available to the selected city, and added a whole lot more in the bargain.
“The $50 million, that’s not the prize,” says Spillar. “And, by the way, it’s a lot more than $50 million at this point. But that’s not the prize. The prize is the opportunity to attract manufacturing jobs to Central Texas, to bring companies’ headquarters to Central Texas.”
He then mentions that officials from two separate companies have contacted Austin’s leaders about relocating their headquarters to the capital city, and others have expressed interest in bringing technology manufacturing facilities, as well.
“And, that’s something that Austin doesn’t have. As strong as Austin’s economy has been, it’s lacking manufacturing jobs.”
Spillar also talks about the possibility of creating what he refers to as a Texas Research Triangle, involving the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute, The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Transportation Research and the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.
The goal of the challenge might be partnerships and new jobs, but the actual, tangible results of the funding will come in the form of the pilot programs that are able to launch with the aid of the money granted by both the public and private sectors.
Another strong possibility to be funded by the grants is a fully automated service at Austin Bergstrom International Airport — driverless cars that bring travelers from the airport to their rental cars or to their parking lots or to their on-premises hotel. The fact that the roadways at the airport are entirely self-contained yet still resemble public streets in their size, appearance and traffic make them an ideal testing ground for automated vehicles, says Spillar.
Transportation officials will post the smart city challenge application online the week of May 30. They will travel to Washington, D.C., for in-person interviews with USDOT officials June 7-9. The city should find out if it’s been awarded the grant by June 21 or 22.
Posting the application online is an important aspect of the competition. U.S. transportation officials designed the Smart City Challenge to jumpstart innovation and so that ideas would be shared — between the cities that are finalists and others nationwide. Transportation leaders throughout Texas have spoken with Austin officials about forming a “Smart City Consortium,” which would allow transportation planners to share ideas.
As Spillar says, “This competition has been as much about collaboration among cities as competition.”