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Columbus Named Finalist in $40 Million Transit Upgrade Program

Walker Evans Walker Evans Columbus Named Finalist in $40 Million Transit Upgrade Program
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Columbus has been named one of the seven finalist cities in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Smart Cities Challenge” — an application-based program that will award up to $40 million to one city’s proposal to implement technology-based solutions for improving transit systems.

“With 78 applicants, for Columbus to make the final seven shows a great deal of progress in moving our city forward,” said Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther over the phone today. “It’s kind of cool because you feel like the rest of the country is beginning to understand the success story of Columbus, and it puts us in the company of some great american cities.”

Ginther’s phone call came from SXSW in Austin, where the finalist announcement was made for the program yesterday. He took part in a panel this afternoon along with mayors from other finalist cities to discuss their applications and put a good foot forward in representing their ideas on a national stage.

The Columbus proposal takes a five-pronged approach that focuses on job access, logistics and shipping, visitor connectivity, transit in low-income neighborhoods, and sustainability.

The most interesting portion of the proposal is an idea to pilot a program that would use self-driving vehicles to close the gap in providing “last mile connectivity” from park-and-ride bus transit centers. The program recommends the pilot take place in the area surrounding the Easton Transit Center, located north of Morse Road. Riders who currently utilize the transit center are left with a one mile walk to the middle of East Town Center, and an even further walk to nearby job centers including Huntington Bank, Lane Bryant, 31 Gifts, Express, L Brands and others. Adding driverless cars to get transit commuters to their final destination would make the transit line more attractive to boosting ridership.

The Columbus proposal for the Smart Cities Challenge also includes a plan to help citizens in neighborhoods with few mobility options and lower income levels that cannot afford to utilize transit services.

“What gets me most excited is the way we’re going to be able to assist some of those neighborhoods that are normally left out when it comes to transportation options, so they have better access to job centers, healthcare and education,” explained Ginther. “We can help connect families and residents, and boost economic development — the opportunities are endless. Our goal is to become the Silicon Valley of smart transportation.”

That part of the plan calls for a pilot program that would take a deeper look into the Linden neighborhood to understand transit challenges, and suggests the increase of private-sector services such as Uber and car2go with a possible financial assistance to access those services.

“You can see the track record for public-private partnerships in terms of job creation and economic development,” he explained. “The return is 24 to 1 for every dollar the public sector puts into a public-private partnership — I don’t think there’s any other community that can match that kind of investment, and it gives us an edge with our proposal.”

Some of the other new programs in the proposal focus on app-based technology, such as industry-based applications that would help cargo carrying semi drivers better navigate the Rickenbacker logistics hub, and an app developed with Experience Columbus that would help convention-goers gain real-time information on local traffic, parking and transit options. The Columbus proposal also seeks funding for the continued conversion of the city’s fleet of vehicles to run on compressed natural gas and electricity, and improvements to the Cleveland Avenue Bus Rapid Transit line.

Notably absent from the proposal is any form of rail-based transit proposal, such as a Streetcar or Light Rail line. Many think pieces have been written about the future of mass transit and how it could complement or contrast with autonomous car systems. Ginther said that all types of transit systems are important in a network, and hinted that improved mass transit could still be further down the road.

“I think what we put forth with this opportunity sets the stage in which we can realize some of those other options to make it a truly multimodal system that we want for our kids,” he stated.

The competing finalist cities include Austin, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Denver, Portland and Kansas City. Representatives from all seven finalist cities will present refined proposals in May, with the winner to be announced in June. 

For more information, visit www.transportation.gov/smartcity.

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