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Innovative Transit Projects Get Infusion of Federal Cash

Twenty-five transit projects from around the country received some $14 million in innovation grant funding from the Federal Transit Administration, growing projects like digital fare integration and trip-planning.

A streetcar makes its way through Houston.
A streetcar makes its way through Houston. Ridership across the Harris County service area was down 38 percent in June, compared to a year ago, as transit agencies struggle during the COVID-19 crisis.
The Federal Transit Administration provided some $14 million in innovation grants for 25 projects across the country as part of the Accelerating Innovative Mobility program.

Many of these projects aim to build improved digital systems that better integrate public transit with other transportation providers, develop trip-planning platforms or integrate fare payment systems across a number of mobility providers.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation was awarded $628,000 to develop a regional platform which will enable multimodal trip-planning and payment across a 13-county region in the southern part of the state.

“All shared mobility providers that serve the communities covered by the project will be invited to participate and be listed on the MaaS (Mobility-as-a-Service) platform,” said Christina Joyce, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The collaboration includes seven transit agencies from across the 13 counties.

“This will include intercity bus, [Transportation Network Companies], taxis, micro-mobility, and other on-demand services,” Joyce added.

The idea of fare integration — being able to pay for an entire trip with one swipe, rather than toggling from one app to another, or multiple transactions at vending machines — is often viewed as an essential development given the rise of numerous public and private mobility options.

Nir Erez, founder and CEO of Moovit, an Israeli mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) provider and trip-planning app, anticipates this level of integration is set to move forward in the United States.

“Right now we’re paying for separate modes in separate apps, and that definitely is going to change,” said Erez, in comments during the CoMotion Miami virtual conference in early July.

“In 2022 we will see significant improvement in the way we use multimodal transit,” he added, noting, “paying for public transit, or different modes of transportation, is highly regulated and it’s hyper-local.”

Ultimately, it’s local transit agencies who must take the lead on these projects, said Erez.

The city of Highland Park in Michigan was awarded $225,500 to develop a similar project with trip-planning, booking and payment abilities, while a project in Houston was awarded nearly $1.5 million for an autonomous shuttle project to serve Texas Southern University and the University of Houston campuses. The AV shuttle will operate in mixed vehicular traffic, with METRO, the region’s transit provider, taking the lead on the project.

The first phase of the project began in June last year, largely serving the TSU campus. Eventually, when METRO phases out the TSU and University of Houston project, the shuttle will be put into service accessing a transit center, said Monica Russo, a METRO spokesperson.

“Later, as METRO continues to phase out the project, it will connect to the Purple Line light rail and the Eastwood Transit Center,” Russo explained, adding that there is not yet a timeline for the second phase.

Projects like these help to build partnerships among transit providers and the many other mobility offerings increasingly depended upon, said Sharon Feigon, founder and executive director of the Shared-Use Mobility Center.

“Cities and agencies applied to the FTA grant program pre-COVID because they were really thinking about innovation and how to create more opportunities for customers. Now in the midst of the COVID crisis, these projects are taking on more relevance as commute patterns change and people are looking for different kinds of options,” said Feigon in a statement.

“One of the interesting things about the work we are doing is that we’re not only helping agencies with specific projects but linking them with other agencies and partners that have tried these ideas,” she added. “The focus is on learning what works and what can be scaled up. It’s commendable that despite limited finances, agencies are still eager to test new ideas and explore opportunities. They’re resilient and committed to making them work.”

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 Yreka, Calif.