How seven cities are inventing the future of transportation

It has been a good week for Ohio. On Wednesday, LeBron James and his fellow NBA champion Cavaliers paraded through adoring throngs in downtown Cleveland. And a couple of hours away, down Interstate 71, leaders in Columbus prepared for another coronation, albeit a wonkier one.

Ohio’s capital defeated a half-dozen, tech-savvy, boom town and Rust Belt opponents to win the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “smart city” competition, nabbing $40 million in federal start-up funds to link an impoverished community to jobs using driverless vehicles. A formal hurrah with officials from Washington and the Buckeye State is set for Thursday.

“It’s an Ohio-wide celebration,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said Wednesday.

Columbus spent just $50 million in local transportation funds last year.

But city officials used the promise of the $50 million “smart city” prize — which includes the federal grant and $10 million more from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan company — to raise matching funds of $90 million from local supporters, giving them $140 million to invest in transforming Columbus.

They want to tie the community of Linden, where infant mortality is soaring, to the adjacent job center of Easton using autonomous vehicles. They will develop a smart card and app that would cover bus fares and ride- and car-sharing services and could be used by people without access to credit. And they plan to expand the use of electric vehicles and provide broadband along a key bus route, among other initiatives.

The benefits of winning the national competition “could be even longer lasting, because this can be a model” for cities across Ohio and beyond, Portman said. Focusing on literal “economic mobility” will help bridge “this division between thriving inner cities and some communities that are being left behind.”

With a nod to his local bias, Portman said Columbus deserved the win.

“If you’re Austin or San Francisco or Portland or Denver, you might think this would be consistent with your image,” said Portman, referring to other finalists in the competition. “Maybe some of those cities weren’t quite as hungry as we were. . . . It’s a huge shot in the arm for us.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) called the victory a “game changer for the City of Columbus and central Ohio,” arguing that a combination of federal and local money would make the ambitious project a reality.

Plans by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to reveal the winning city Thursday — after paring down 78 applicants to seven finalists in March — were short-circuited, in part, by the enthusiasm of Brown. The senator’s office confirmed the win to the Columbus Dispatch and issued a news release Tuesday headlined: “Brown Announces Columbus is Winner of $50 Million Smart Cities Challenge.”

“Columbus’ skilled and diverse workforce, state-of-the-art research institutions, and strong-public-private partnerships will help this project succeed,” Brown said in the statement. “I’m glad the Department of Transportation recognized what so many of us already know — Columbus is a smart city that deserves to win this challenge.”

That left Columbus officials, and their counterparts around the country, in an awkward position where the results of their hard-fought face-off were well known but were not being publicly discussed.

“There will be a major community investment in Linden announced on Thursday,” said Rory McGuiness, a top Columbus official who helped spearhead the application. The DOT “told us, as well as all of the other cities, we would know by the end of the month who the winner is.”

A spokesman for Pittsburgh, one of the competitors, said city officials had not been notified of a winner. Jason Stanford, a spokesman for Austin Mayor Steve Adler, said, “Until the mayor of Columbus says anything on the record, we’re not going to say anything on the record.”

“But should the city not come out on top, we have long said Pittsburgh is already a leader in smart transportation initiatives,” Timothy McNulty said. “What we and our partners learned through this process only reinforces our vision.”

Adler has called the city’s congestion woes an “existential” threat to Austin’s quality of life. He said plans put together over the past six months to address that threat will remain a priority.

“The most important thing for us,” Stanford said, is that “whether or not we win, we’re still going to do it.”

The seventh finalist was Kansas City, Mo.