Seeking to advance urban use of new transportation technologies, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation has launched a grant competition to find the city that DOT judges to  have the most forward-looking projects, programs and ideas for moving people.

The “Smart City Challenge,” which DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx announced on Dec. 7, would provide the winning municipality up to $40 million from DOT and $10 million from Vulcan Inc., the Seattle-based investment firm led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

The competition is open to “mid-size” cities, which DOT defines as having a population from about 200,000 to 850,000.  Foxx, a former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., told reporters in a conference call, “We want to find places that have big enough problems that the solutions are replicable across the country, but small enough so that we can see a sizable dent in those challenges based on the amount of money available.”

Foxx says DOT is seeking to find the municipality “that develops the most innovative, most forward-thinking plan to harness technology and reimagine how people move...."
He says the range of possible proposals is “very broad” and could include plans for such things as autonomous or connected vehicles, intelligent transportation systems, smart grid roadway electrification and electric vehicles.

“The funding does exist,” Foxx says.  “This isn’t coming out of smoke and mirrors.”

He adds that the funds would fall under the Federal Highway Administration’s joint programs office. But DOT also notes that the funds are subject to future congressional appropriations.

The sums DOT would make available certainly wouldn’t be large enough to fund a major new rail transit line or other megaproject. But Foxx says, “Forty million dollars is enough to get folks’ attention.” He also says other entities, such as private firms or philanthropic organizations might be sources of additional money for the program.

Cities that apply for the smart city award would not be required to put up their own matching funds, Foxx says.

Applications are due by Feb. 4.  DOT plans to name five finalists in March and select the winner in June.

Candidates also must have an existing public transit system and have the “capacity” to implement their plans. Foxx said applicants must be municipalities but their plan could involve other participants, such as private companies and universities.

DOT says it particularly would like to see ideas that would improve safety, reduce carbon emissions and enhance residents’ mobility.

Barbara Bennett, Vulcan president and chief operating officer, notes that one goal of the program will be to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from transportation, which produce more than 25% of total U.S. carbon emissions.

Through the new program with DOT, Bennett adds, “We’re going to enable the most innovative, ambitious and forward-thinking city in America to show just how practical and rewarding it really is to start transitioning from carbon-based fuels to clean and renewable energy sources.”