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Columbus Makes Its Pitch for $40 Million “Smart City” Grant

Brent Warren Brent Warren Columbus Makes Its Pitch for $40 Million “Smart City” GrantPhoto by Walker Evans.
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US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx was in town yesterday to talk about the “Smart City Challenge,” a national competition that will award up to $40 million to the city judged to have the best ideas for utilizing technology to improve its transportation network.

Columbus was one of seven cities named as finalists for the award in March, and a broad range of business, community, and government leaders used the event — billed as a roundtable discussion with Foxx and Mayor Andrew Ginther and held at the Lincoln Theatre — to give their best pitches to the Secretary for why they think Columbus should be chosen when the winning city is picked later this summer.

Some spoke to the great need for more and better transportation options in the city, whether that’s for the seniors population, young adults, or for residents of neighborhoods like Linden — an area singled out for investment in the original Columbus Smart City application — where access to reliable and convenient transit is most needed.

Former Mayor Michael Coleman was one of many speakers to emphasize the track record of collaboration in the city. He touted the recent $30 million Choice Neighborhood Initiative grant — which is being used to build a mixed-income neighborhood on the site of the former Poindexter Village — and how that federal money was used to leverage an additional $200 million in public and private investment in the neighborhood.

“The same thing will happen with this award,” Coleman said. “We will stack hands… and it will impact Columbus dramatically.”

Ginther said that the goal of the Columbus proposal is to “help connect the disconnected,” and to be proactive in exploring how new technologies — like driverless cars — can be used to do so. He pointed out that when I-71 was built, it served to disconnect a thriving African American neighborhood on the east side from downtown.

Foxx agreed that “the history of transportation has not always been great when it comes to being as inclusive as possible, and I-71 is a good example.” He added that a central question being asked in the competition is, “what if we as a country thought about being inclusive at the beginning, and we built out systems around inclusive ideas?”

Foxx anticipates that the winning city will be the focus of a lot of attention.

“The world is watching this competition in a very interesting way,” he said. “There’s a conversation about smart cities but it’s for the most part kind of philosophical, and I think the difference between the global smart cities conversation and this competition is that this is a very practical, very brass tacks program… and you can fully expect, if you win this thing, that the spotlight of the world will be here.”

Foxx also stressed that the Department of Transportation will work with all of the applicant cities to try and match their ideas with other government funding streams, so that even those cities that do not win the final prize will likely be able to implement at least some of their ideas.

Asked after the program if there was anything that stood out about Columbus’ efforts in comparison to the other cities still in the running, Foxx said that he has been impressed with the city’s “collaborative spirit.”

“The degree to which the city is unearthing resources that are here,” he said, “both human resources as well as infrastructure, like the Ohio State University, which is very much involved… those partnerships will matter a lot when it comes to execution, so it’s very encouraging.”

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