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Smart City Challenge Program to See $500M in Federal Funding

The federal grants program that funded the Smart City Challenge is set to grow to $500 million under the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, vastly expanding transportation innovation opportunities.

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Broad federal initiatives to expand transportation and smart city innovation have been significantly revived since the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The grants program that awarded $40 million to Columbus, Ohio, back in 2016 to launch the multi-year Smart Columbus electric vehicle expansion and transportation equity program is now set to receive $500 million from the federal infrastructure package.

“The last time I was at the department we scraped everything we could, broke a lot of china, to get $40 million for the Smart City Challenge,” said Carlos Monje, undersecretary of policy for the U.S. Department of Transportation, speaking at the CoMotion LA conference last week. “This is going to move the ball significantly forward.”

Much has changed in the five years since Columbus was awarded what was then a historic opportunity to advance transportation innovation in central Ohio. For starters, in the next five years the recently passed $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure package includes unprecedented amounts of funding for public transit, EV expansion and steps to address climate change — which is itself playing a larger role in the national consciousness than it did five years ago. There has also been a national reckoning around racial inequity and social justice and, of course, the many ways life has been touched by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Today, we are faced with enormous challenges. Climate change, widening racial inequity, and still rebounding economy and the global pandemic. The president’s bi-partisan infrastructure law… gives us the tools to meet these challenges,” said Monje.

Transportation and transportation policy should be the centerpiece of efforts to expand health-care opportunities, equity expansion and economic advancement, said Jordan Davis, executive director of Smart Columbus, the regional innovation lab, during the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo in suburban Washington, D.C., last month.

“The role that transportation plays to the underpinning of a successful community can be uplifted with these investments,” she added.

The five-year Smart Columbus project came to its conclusion earlier this year. During its run, Smart Columbus took the lead in growing the adoption of electric vehicles, both among the driving public and the city’s fleet. A new smart parking system was launched, along with a mobility-as-a-service app called Pivot that puts various public- and private-sector modes within one app. An autonomous shuttle program was also launched, among other projects. All of these functioned within the newly designed Smart City Operating System.

Communities all across the country may be looking to the Columbus playbook for a vision to move forward on all of these initiatives, as they explore projects to be funded by the new infrastructure law. The measure will send $90 billion to public transit, $13 billion for road safety, which includes some $6 billion for a new Safe Streets for All program to “help communities of all sizes reduce crashes and fatalities, especially for people who walk and bike,” said Monje.

The new law will also fund 1,000 electric school buses, help to build out a national network of public chargers for electric vehicles and modernize the electric grid.

“We do really see it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to meet this consequential moment,” said Monje.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.
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