The City of Columbus has been named the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City. Columbus was chosen from a field of seven finalists – beating out tech and transportation hubs like San Francisco, Austin and Portland – to receive $50 million in grant funding from the federal government and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. to develop Columbus into the nation’s proving ground for intelligent transportation systems. The city also has about $90 million in local matching commitments lined up for a total of $140 million to upgrade Columbus’s transportation network to become the “country’s first city to fully integrate innovative technologies – self-driving cars, connected vehicles, and smart sensors – into their transportation network.”

The Smart City grant is a four year grant with payouts starting in July of this year. Most of the work will be accomplished in the first three years of the grant, with the fourth year largely devoted to collecting data and evaluating how the technology is working.

Columbus’s plan emphasized electric and autonomous transit – creating corridors for autonomous vehicles, turning the city’s fleet to electric vehicles and equipping thousands of buses, taxis and cars with vehicle-to-vehicle communication. The city also plans to deploy three electric self-driving shuttles to link bus service to the Easton Town Center retail district, which would better connect citizens to jobs. While those projects will take planning and time to get off the ground, the city also has some projects ready to implement in the near term, including:

  • A “smart lighting” project meant to make the Linden neighborhood more walkable at night with motion-activated lights to conserve electricity that will also act as free wireless internet hot spots.
  • A retrofit of city buses with technology that activates a camera if something shows up in the driver’s blind spot, for example. Buses also will have signal priority on certain routes, so traffic lights can detect whether the buses are on time and change to help them speed up trips.

A key component of the Columbus application for the grant was its inclusion of projects to help meet the transportation needs of citizens who live in low-income neighborhoods – including a link to plans to improve Columbus’s infant mortality rate, one of the highest in the nation. Officials have said that improving transportation options in poor neighborhoods could better connect new and expectant mothers to health care services. The city is also exploring a transit pass payment system that could be used for multiple forms of transportation and could help citizens who do not have credit cards or bank accounts. Kiosks could be built to reload transit cards, or the city could use a smartphone app as a universal payment system.

Columbus is wasting no time in moving forward and is already taking responses from contractors on three major requests for qualifications for communications, electrification and intelligent transportation systems.