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5 Takeaways from Federally Administered Next-Gen Transportation Programs for Modernizing Infrastructure

Transportation is a rapidly evolving industry. The worst-case scenario is allocating millions to a resource that quickly becomes obsolete. Federal agencies play a vital role in helping cities hit the moving target.

by / February 28, 2017

Federal grants for infrastructure upgrades and transportation are nothing new. On the contrary, the federal government has largely been in charge of the nation’s infrastructure due to its jurisdiction on interstate commerce and ability to coordinate state agencies to follow uniform codes and standards. With recent developments and grant programs, this model seems to be evolving.

During Anthony Foxx’s tenure as secretary of transportation, he and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) initiated the Smart City Challenge, which put up $40 million of federal funds and an additional $10 million from Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. to the mid-size city that created the best strategy that integrated next-generation transportation systems. As the former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., Foxx helped identify where innovation was taking place while creating a climate for sharing best practices and distributing the benefits.

Columbus, Ohio, was eventually chosen as the winner for its plan to create a multimodal transportation system that harnesses the power and potential of data and technology to help connect underserved populations.

On a smaller scale, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) held a competition for transforming infrastructure and transportation systems. In May 2016, the FTA announced the Mobility on Demand (MOD) Sandbox grant program. The $8 million initiative challenged cities and transportation agencies to develop multimodal, integrated, automated, accessible and connected transportation system programs that prioritize personalized mobility. According to Gwo-Wei Torng, director of the FTA's Office of Mobility Innovation, six themes arose: paratransit and demand response service, first mile/last mile, multimodal app/payment, incentive strategies, carpooling and ride sharing, and integrated bike sharing.

In a webinar Feb. 13 hosted by the Transportation Research Board, leaders from the FTA, DOT and Columbus discussed the programs and why they were successful.

Inverting the Top-Down Approach

One of the reasons why the Smart City Challenge was successful, according to Mark Dowd, former White House senior adviser on management and budget, was the nature of the challenge. Cities are much more likely to understand their need and how they can accomplish their goals.

“Generally we grant money to the states,” said Dowd. “This time we moved the money to the cities directly, with a bottom-up approach.” By having money go directly to cities and not allocated to specific projects, there was a much wider range of programs. “If you take a top-down approach everyone’s application is going to look exactly the same,” he said.

Requiring Collaboration

One of the most enticing reasons for Columbus’ win is that the city had helped raise $90 million in matching funds. Foxx explained how the city's departments were all on the same page and dedicated to the program. Additionally, when the six other finalists were named — San Francisco; Pittsburgh; Kansas City, Mo.; Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore.; and Denver — the DOT held workshops with representatives from every city requiring collaboration and the sharing of plans. For the MOD Sandbox program, each city or agency had to bring one strategic partner, either a private company, another municipal actor or a nonprofit, that shares the ultimate vision and helps work on the obstacles to the table to demonstrate that work was already underway.

Defined Goals/Clear Vision

With so much money at stake, Columbus had many suitors offering to match funds, but as deputy director for the city’s Public Service Department, Aparna Dial, said, “You have to be able to say no.” While it may seem enticing to attach every plan that would add to the application's funds, “with each new partner comes new priorities,” said Dial.

By having the cities set their own goals, the DOT was able to ensure that the problems they were working to solve were most troubling. Sometimes with grants, said Dowd, cities will apply for solutions that look for problems. This way the agency can be sure cities identified problems first and didn't go looking for issues to fit the program.

Understanding Success

Because these programs are looking at transportation holistically, the typical metrics of a successful transit project were insufficient for judging the programs. Torng explained that while measuring bus ridership can help inform transportation officials of how well the bus system is working, it will not indicate what other programs are being used. “What's more important is how many people’s mobility needs are met, not how many people are put on a bus.”

The future of transportation is not necessarily a comprehensive light rail system, or highways to every part of the city, but usually a mix of all of the above. People may walk or summon a ride-sharing service to deliver them to a common public transit stop to board a train that takes them downtown where their job is located. It is hard to get specific measures for how riders utilize these different modes, but we need change our thinking, “from system centric to people centric,” Torng said.

Balancing Today’s Reality with Future Needs

One of the most challenging aspects for Columbus in its plan to modernize the city’s transportation infrastructure was the rapid nature of the change in technology. Many times, it is like trying to hit a moving target, said Dial. While trying to plan for how the city will look and what construction to undertake, it's important to remain cognizant of how construction will immediately impact residents.

Like most metropolitan areas, Columbus requires new developments and buildings to have a certain number of dedicated parking spaces. In the short term, this seems like a necessary regulation to make sure there's enough space for people to access new homes or careers. However, with the onset of autonomous vehicles and the increasing popularity of ride-sharing services, this may soon be an antiquated rule.

“The ultimate vision might be that we don't want any cars downtown in 20 years,” Dial said. “How do we bridge the gap between today and what we want in the future? Because construction today will affect what we do in the next 20 years.”

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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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