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Columbus, Ohio, Official Says Smart City Progress in First Year Consists of 'Internal Workings'

A year after Columbus was dubbed America's Smart City, autonomous vehicles, universal fare cards and hundreds of electric vehicle charging stations haven't yet materialized. But officials say the city has made progress, even if you can't see it on the streets.

(TNS) -- Columbus took its biggest step onto the national stage a year ago when it was dubbed America's Smart City.

The distinction came with a big prize. The city received a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation and another $10 million from Vulcan Inc. to turn Columbus into the test track for intelligent transportation systems.

It also came with a ticking clock: four years to follow through on a wide-ranging proposal and produce data showing what pieces succeeded or failed.

A year later, autonomous vehicles, universal fare cards and hundreds of electric vehicle charging stations haven't yet materialized. But officials say the city has made progress, even if you can't see it on the streets.

"I think a lot has been accomplished in the last year, but it's been more of the internal workings," said Michael Stevens, Columbus' chief innovation officer.

The internal workings didn't exist in Columbus before it won the grant.

The city signed grant agreements with the federal government in August and with Vulcan in April. It spun off Smart Columbus from the Department of Public Service and paired up with the Columbus Partnership, a collection of the city's private-sector executives, to run the program at the Idea Foundry in Franklinton.

Those two groups split responsibilities, though they work together. The city's primary job is to make sure it fulfills the promises made for the $40 million federal grant. The Partnership is handling a lot of the plans around promoting electric vehicles as required by the $10 million grant from Vulcan.

They've also spent time rounding up other commitments and partnerships that total more than $500 million. About $23 million of that is cash.

It includes about $262 million in related projects, such as American Electric Power's plan to install "smart meters" in homes, and $218 million in research commitments. Some of those projects already were in the works but dovetail with Smart Cities.

The goal is to sustain the initiative beyond the four-year grant period.

"It's the first 10 feet of a 10-mile race," said Mark Patton, the Partnership's vice president overseeing Smart Columbus. "It's going to play out over years."

Some of the related projects are likely to be among the first to hit the streets. For example, the Central Ohio Transit Authority plans to update its fare boxes in the fall to accept payment with a cellphone or "smart" card that can be loaded with money on the internet.

COTA already was planning that $6.5 million project, but it aligned with the Smart Columbus plan to produce a fare card that works across multiple forms of transportation, including buses, bike shares and others, CEO Curtis Stitt said.

More electric vehicle charging stations likely will start popping up soon, too. The seven-county central Ohio region has 118 stations now, but Smart Columbus plans to add 305 by the end of the grant.

Patton said he already is working with members of the Columbus Partnership to convert their fleet vehicles to electric and to create incentives for employees to buy electric cars. They could provide better parking and charging stations to encourage workers to buy electric, he said.

The "demonstration projects" the city promised in its grant application are moving slower. During 2017 and 2018, the city will turn ideas such as autonomous shuttles at Easton, universal fare cards and a clearinghouse for transportation data into projects it could eventually produce.

The so-called integrated data exchange has never been produced before, Stevens said, and Smart Columbus has to figure out how to build it.

Smart Columbus should start purchasing equipment needed for the projects in 2018. They will do internal testing and start projects in 2019 and 2020, he said.

Stevens acknowledged that some of the projects are going to fail, and Smart Columbus has to provide the data and process to the government so it can either replicate them elsewhere or avoid the same mistakes. Parts of the plan have been evolving even as the city works with the U.S. Department of Transportation because of rapid changes in technology, he said.

"You don't want to use Betamax when everyone else is using VHS," he said.

©2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.