Central Florida will explore smart transportation projects through a new agreement with the University of South Florida. Tampa Bay officials signed a memorandum of understanding with the Center for Urban Transportation Research at USF as a first step toward working together on “smart city solutions,” said Vik Bhide, chief traffic management engineer and manager of the Smart Cities Program in Tampa Bay. 

“Central to our thought process on smart cities is the coming together of public agencies like cities, academia such as universities, and the private sector,” said Bhide. “That’s because of the unique way some of these solutions get rolled out. They’re very technology heavy, so it’s important to have the evaluation piece, as well as the private sector — who keeps up with the technology — involved.”

The MOU comes after more than two years of work on the part of the city and university to form an agreement to investigate smart cities technologies. The partnership offers the city a mechanism for elevating conversations around smart transportation projects it’s already involved with “to the national level,” said Bhide. 

“The way we would do that is USF and Tampa would then take the city and university partnership and become part of MetroLab Network,” said Bhide, referring to the network of more than 35 city-university partners that use data and analytics to solve real-world urban problems. USF and Tampa will apply to join this collaborative.

“That does plug us into a national dialogue now, where we can learn from what other communities in the country are doing, and also share some of our unique perspectives,” Bhide explained. “Tampa is a very typical mid-size U.S. city, when it comes to our diversity, makeup and challenges. If you look at climate change, we’re in the middle of it. If you look at growth, we’re your typical kind of underserved, transit-type city with congestion problems.”

The MOU formalizes an already friendly and collaborative relationship the city has had with USF, according to Jean Duncan, director Transportation and Storm-water Services in Tampa Bay. “Even before we signed this memorandum of understanding, we’ve had a really strong and healthy relationship with the University of South Florida,” she said. “We’re so lucky to have this key, major research group right in our backyard. We have a number of collaborative things we’re doing with the students. We have training that we’re offering — data sharing where they come to our traffic management center and get involved, hands-on, with our work, and use some of our data.”

The city is creating a mini-traffic management center on the university campus that will offer real-world training, according to Duncan. The work is part of a broad effort by the city to address modern transportation issues. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn called transportation “the Achilles heel of our community,” during the March 20 signing ceremony.

Tampa is at the center of connected transportation research with its Tampa Connected Vehicle Pilot, which outfits some 1,600 private vehicles with devices that take into account speed, braking distance and other driving data to determine, for example, when a motorist should brake when coming to the end of a freeway off-ramp, given the car’s speed and number of cars ahead.

The pilot, which is being led by the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority, launched last fall, and is now recruiting motorists to participate, offering incentives such as a 30 percent rebate on expressway tolls, up to $550. Last week, representatives from 14 transportation agencies around the country came to Tampa to see the technology in action.

The project, which requires that special equipment is installed on private vehicles, is partnering with the Hillsborough Community College to have students install the connected devices, as an effort to have smart transportation projects generate educational opportunities, and possibly jobs.

Resolving transportation problems through technology “is good governance. It’s smart politics. It’s good economics,” said Buckhorn.