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How to Cope With the Loss of Smart City Funding

How can cities continue their progress toward becoming smart when funding tied to a ballot measure fails?

by / February 17, 2017

Last fall, Oakley, Calif., city officials were anxious about the beginning of a smart city transformation. Ideas were floated about connected mobility, more efficient online government services and linking security cameras together to aid police dispatch centers.

“There are hundreds of different initiatives,” said Public Works Director and City Engineer Kevin Rohani back in October. The program was in large part reliant on funding from Ballot Measure X.

But on the night of Nov. 8, Contra Costa County voters voted the measure down – and the $65 million that was to be divided between cities within the county for innovative transportation systems and connected communities.

“Obviously a lot of people were disappointed when Measure X did not pass, but having said that, we are not giving up,” said Rohani, who went on to explain that there was always a possibility that the measure would be defeated, but that hasn’t shaken the city’s resolve to improve the lives of residents.

City councilmember Kevin Romick echoed that sentiment: “As a city we are still committed to the process. This just makes it a little more difficult.”

The city demonstrated that commitment by passing the Smart City Program (PDF), in late January. And working with the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) and Stantec, a community engineering firm, the city identified the steps necessary to achieve its goal of enhancing service delivery efficiencies, lowering operational costs and improving the quality of life for residents.

In the program, the city identifies two primary areas for investment: mobility and information technology. Oakley is a commuter city, said Romick. Anything to help lower the time getting to your job or school will be incredibly beneficial to Oakley residents.

“The No. 1 priority that became evident from the workshop was mobility and traffic congestion,” said Arya Rohani, senior principal of Stantec’s transportation technologies division (and who is of no relation to Kevin Rohani). Transportation is something the “community can touch and feel very actively.”

The program identified first mile/last mile solutions, shared autonomous vehicles and intelligent transportation system as some of the top priorities for Oakley.

In addition to moving people more efficiently, Oakley also wants to move information more efficiently. The city is committed to laying down a connected critical technology: Nothing can be done without a high-speed, highly secure and high-performance communication network, said Arya Rohani. “That's the foundation for … every city that is interested in smart city programs. Without that right foundation there are going to be a lot of challenges down the road if they keep adding things piece-meal.”

While the funding from Measure X would have alleviated the burden of trying to find sources of funding, the money itself would not solve the issue. The city will have to be more creative in looking for avenues of financing. One strategy is to be vigilant of any potential smart city grants.

“There are options through either federal or state or regional government sources as well as potentially private sector partners,” said Kevin Rohani, who added that most of the grant searching will be done with help from CCTA. The city has also enlisting the services of a consultant to oversee the grant awarding process.

Another strategy will be to actively pursue public-private partnerships (P3s). “We will be open to working with anybody who has an idea of how they want to embrace the smart city technology,” said Romick. 

Asked if the city is able to identify smaller companies that are interested in demonstrating their technology, Arya Rohani explained that that could end up being a mutually beneficial agreement. The company could get a platform for its proof of concept, while Oakley would receive a smart city technology service at minimum cost.

One such opportunity has already presented itself. The City Council voted on Feb. 14 to enter into a partnership with Phillips Lighting to install smart light poles (PDF). Romick explained that the agreement has dual benefits: The city will save money on energy because the poles use low-energy LED bulbs and the poles themselves will provide wireless broadband coverage for residents.

The city will own the poles themselves, while the equipment inside will be leased to broadband carriers, who will work to better saturate neighborhoods with coverage. The current agreement is for 50 poles over 10 years and it is renewable for three additional five-year terms.

“This is just one example of the type of partnerships that are available,” said Romick. The city is determined to, “get up off the ground, and keep marching forward.”

Ryan McCauley Former Staff Writer

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.

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