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Austin competes for $50 million Smart City grant

Friday, March 25, 2016 by Jack Craver

A broad coalition of Austin’s political and business leaders is excited about the prospect of the city being awarded $50 million to put in place a variety of groundbreaking “smart” transit technologies.

In a presentation to City Council on Thursday, Director of Transportation Robert Spillar explained that city staff is preparing a proposal that will hopefully result in Austin beating out the other six finalists for the Smart City grant. The contenders were announced by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx at a mobility event held at South by Southwest last week. Seventy-eight cities had applied for the grant originally.

The other cities competing for the grant are Denver; Kansas City, Missouri; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; Pittsburgh; and Columbus, Ohio.

Spillar said his inbox has been “blowing up” with messages from area companies interested in helping the city win the grant. According to his presentation, three dozen businesses, including AT&T, Uber, Google, IBM, Verizon, Ford and General Motors have submitted letters of support on behalf of the city’s bid.

Spillar also highlighted a number of public sector entities collaborating with the city on the initiative, such as the Capital Metro Transportation Authority, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the University of Texas Center for Transportation Research and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

The city that is awarded the money will be expected to produce outcomes that improve mobility and safety and reduce greenhouse emissions that contribute to climate change.

The project envisions the implementation of groundbreaking technology, such as automated shuttles (for people or products), the electrification of city vehicles and a number of initiatives aimed at making transportation and parking more efficient, such as app-enabled car- and vanpooling.

Spillar floated the idea of automated shuttles that would deliver groceries to people in food deserts.

Most of the funding, $40 million, will come from the U.S. Department of Transportation, and $10 million will come from Vulcan Inc., the company founded and led by Paul Allen, the billionaire Seattle businessman and philanthropist best known for co-founding Microsoft with Bill Gates.

Mayor Steve Adler said the grant represents a major opportunity that could make Austin “the capital of the future.”

The grant “will brand the winning city as the place for mobility ideas,” he said.

Adler later called the need for transportation innovation an “existential” issue for Austin. “If we’re going to save the spirit and soul of this city, it’s because of advancements,” he explained.

Other Council members echoed his enthusiasm. Council Member Ann Kitchen pointed out that the grant did not require any type of matching spending from the city but noted that a city’s demonstrated financial commitment to transportation would likely be taken into account by those awarding the grant.

The kumbaya moment was broken up by conservative Council Member Don Zimmerman, who argued that city residents want more roads and wider highways but are being ignored by city officials intent on pursuing public transit projects.

“You’ve got to build roads and highways to solve congestion,” he said. “The voters and taxpayers are very upset that we’ve fallen behind and not built more highways and roads.”

Many of Zimmerman’s colleagues were eager to rebuke his analysis.

Council Member Leslie Pool said that she believed she spoke for “a large contingent, if not a majority, of the city” in supporting multimodal transportation options.

Adler also noted that adding “lanes and lanes and more lanes” would not solve congestion, saying that such a strategy serves only to put more cars on the roads. “We have to be smarter, we have to be more innovative,” he said.

The mayor also said that he hoped more employers would consider allowing workers to stagger their hours or work from home. Reducing peak traffic by just 20 percent, he said, would eliminate standstill traffic on I-35 and MoPac.

Council Member Pio Renteria also dismissed Zimmerman’s argument, saying that residents of his district support mass transit. He also recounted a recent traffic jam he experienced in Houston. “If people think that roads are going to solve our problems, try Houston for a week.”

The city’s final proposal is due in May. That will be followed by an interview with federal transportation officials in June, and the grant winner will be announced later that month.

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