What are the feds doing for smart cities? More than you might think

Thu, 2016-09-01 16:00 -- Doug Peeples

Cities are scrambling to find the dollars and expertise required to support expanded or new services to meet the needs of growing populations, and sometimes potential resources can be overlooked. If your city needs help with financing and technology solutions, the U.S. Department of Transportation may have what you're looking for. The story below outlines a few examples of DOT programs with a focus on smart cities. — Doug Peeples

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Smart City Challenge, a competition designed to encourage cities to develop advanced transportation systems, received a lot of press — particularly when Columbus, Ohio was named in June as the winner of up to $40 million from DOT to help it develop a forward-thinking transportation ecosystem.

But it's far from the agency's only contribution to smart city initiatives. There are other DOT programs focused on helping cities clear the obstacles in their path to becoming smarter, programs that could provide excellent opportunities for your city's smart transportation planning.

The critical role that the federal government is playing to improve transportation across the country is one of the themes that leaders will discuss at Smart Cities Week, September 27-29 in Washington, D.C. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx will deliver a keynote address on the second day of the conference, emphasizing the long-term view and broad approach that’s required so that cities can help their swelling populations move around efficiently.

During a visit last week to a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Silicon Valley extension project the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority is undertaking, Secretary Foxx noted that it and other major projects like it are essential for meeting the needs of growing urban populations — and that those projects are not short-term commitments. "We're finding that in fast-growing areas where the population is growing exponentially, having the transportation options available so that people can bike, walk or use public transit in addition to using the automobile is how we're going to get around in the 21st century. We're building the future here. This isn't just a five or 10-year project, this is a 50-, 60-, 70-year project."

Foxx also commented that funding for transportation and mobility is not what it should be. "In terms of funding, are we meeting our challenges? No, we're not meeting our challenges. But what you're doing here by investing in yourselves and competing favorably against other parts of the country for precious federal transportation dollars is and should be instructive to the rest of the country." DOT's Federal Transit Administration has invested $900 million in the Silicon Valley BART project.

A new DOT bureau to help cities with financing, technical assistance
As part of an overall effort to support smart transportation initiatives, DOT last month announced the Build America Bureau which is intended to bring together and simplify credit and grant opportunities, provide technical assistance and encourage new approaches to project planning, financing, delivery and monitoring. Secretary Foxx described it as a "one-stop shop ot help develop projects and provide financing in a single, streamlined, effective and comprehensive manner."

The new bureau will combine a number of DOT's existing programs, including the Transportation Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act, the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing, the private activity bond, the Build America Transportation Investment Center and a new program, the $800 million Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-term Achievement of National Efficiencies grant program.

Earlier this month, DOT also pledged $7 million earlier this month for research to improve public transportation through the Federal Transportation Administration. The Safety Research & Demonstration program will focus on improved safety for both public transportation workers and passengers, and support research on new technologies and vehicle designs to reduce traffic accidents.

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.