Who will win the federal Smart City Challenge?

Seven US cities this week pitched their ideas for the US Department of Transportation initiative aimed at implementing new technologies into civic systems. The winner will receive funding to kickstart new projects.

Larry Downing/Reuters/File
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx delivers an announcement at the Department of Transportation in Washington in May.

Seven United States mayors this week made the cases for their cities, each hoping to win millions of dollars of federal funding as part of an initiative to create the country’s first “Smart City.”

The US Department of Transportation's (DOT) Smart City Challenge, issued this past December, offers each city the opportunity to claim up to $40 million from the federal agency and millions more from corporate sponsors to update its transportation systems to prepare for the future. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx in March announced the seven civic finalists in the challenge culled from 78 municipal applicants. The winner will be announced later this month.

Representatives from Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Denver; Kansas City, Mo.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Portland, Ore.; and San Francisco, Calif., this week argued their cases as to why their cities should “become the country’s first city to fully integrate innovative technologies – self-driving cars, connected vehicles, and smart sensors – into their transportation network,” according to the DOT challenge.

The program was started in response to the 2015 DOT report, Beyond Traffic, which highlighted the potential future transportation problems of the United States, resulting from a surging population and aging and often ineffective infrastructure. That report concluded that much of the nation is not prepared for future transportation needs, a problem Foxx and the DOT hope the Smart City Challenge can begin to address.

“[F]or most of my lifetime, our transportation system has been on a decline, in terms of our investment, in terms of travel times, in terms of congestion,” Foxx told the Associated Press. But Foxx says he thinks that could change, starting with a progressive smart city that could provide a model for transforming transportation.

“This is going to be an era when transportation is going to literally change in front our eyes,” he said.

The seven cities’ pitches before the DOT this past week more resembled something from a tech investment conference than a typical federal budgeting exercise, highlighting Foxx’s position that the Smart City initiative is “not a normal government challenge;” city officials issued their proposals from a stage while pushing innovation and collaboration.

The ideas presented at the meeting included the citywide implementation of travel planning apps, Wi-Fi access on major transportation routes, support for electric vehicles, updated safety technologies on public transit vehicles, the integration of self-driving buses, and more.

Each of the mid-size cities cited different problems they need to address, and different ways of incorporating government, private companies, and communities into the solution.

“We’re learning from this, too,” Foxx told the AP. “Trying to figure out the technology in isolation is different than trying to understand how we play a role in technologies that cities gravitate toward. It helps us understand more of the specific types of problems cities are trying to tackle.”

Foxx is expected to announce the civic challenge winner soon after the recent meeting, but even after awarding the major grant the six other finalists will not go away empty-handed. The runners-up are each set to receive $100,000 to go toward the initiatives promoted during the competition, and officials hope the planned progress in one or two cities could spark a rapid spread of innovation over the coming years.

“I think the mayors enjoyed being in the temporary role of being competitors,” Portland Mayor Charlie Hales said to CityLab. “We’re normally not. We’re always collaborating … and that will reassert itself after the competition is over.”

The seven cities’ video pitches to the DOT can be viewed on the department’s YouTube channel.

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