Kansas City hopes a pioneering vision for public transportation will help it emerge as the top contender for a $50 million award.
Kansas City is one of seven finalists for the “Beyond Traffic Smart City Challenge,” which will dish $50 million to a mid-sized city dealing with rapidly-changing transportation needs. With stiff competition from tech hotbeds like San Francisco, Austin and Denver, city leaders drafting a bid for the funds hope to stand out with bold ideas.
“The projects envisioned reflect the goal of the city’s bid to use transportation systems as means to improve people’s lives as a whole.” – Troy Schulte
And one of those ideas includes buses that drive themselves, said Troy Schulte, city manager of Kansas City. Schulte shared the city’s transit vision with the U.S. Department of Transportation on Thursday, detailing how it hopes to improve citizens’ lives — especially in disadvantaged areas.
One such avenue, he said, was to make Kansas City among the first cities where citizens can ride driverless buses on downtown streets before 2020.
“The projects envisioned reflect the goal of the city’s bid to use transportation systems as means to improve people’s lives as a whole, especially for those living in an area of the city where private development has lagged,” Schulte wrote. “Instead of dividing lines, Kansas City aims to be a leader in innovation. … Academic leaders plan to establish systems to sustain momentum and keep Kansas City at the forefront of innovation well into the 22nd Century.”
Two pillars of Kansas City’s bid — on which more than 70 corporate, civic and startup leaders have helped shape — are its streetcar line and smart city initiative. In early May, Kansas City synced the kickoff of its 2.2-mile streetcar line with the launch of its smart city project.
The $15.7 million public-private project aims to transform Kansas City’s downtown into a living lab of Wi-Fi connectivity on and around the streetcar line. The project is a collaboration between Kansas City, Sprint, Cisco and Think Big Partners.
Via a 50-square-block Wi-Fi and sensor network, the city can track pedestrian density, streetcar obstructions, weather and other information. The project has resulted in 125 “smart” LED streetlights and 25 touchscreen kiosks that offer information on city services, nearby restaurants and real-time information collected from smart city sensors.
“Data derived from these sources allows the city to prioritize services, better understand economic development opportunities in the Wi-Fi zone and respond to crises — in real time,” Schulte wrote.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx visited Kansas City on May 20 to discuss the city’s plans. Foxx offered kudos on the city’s work, but no guarantees on receiving the funds.
“To see the energy and the teamwork that people are putting into this application is pretty amazing,” Foxx said, according to the Kansas City Star.
The city appears to be particularly well-suited for the $50 million award, which is comprised of a $40 million federal transportation grant, plus $10 million from Vulcan Philanthropy. Bob Bennett, Kansas City’s chief innovation officer, said that the funds would transform the area’s transportation system.
If awarded the funds, Bennett said he’d like to digitize a new MAX rapid bus line on Prospect Avenue and develop new regulations and infrastructure for autonomous vehicles. He added that it also would be used for an expansion of the city’s bike-sharing program and green spaces, as well as improve access to city transportation services. The city applied for the grant on Feb. 4.
“It’d be tremendous,” Bennett said of winning the grant. “Regardless of what happens with the grant competition, these are activities that we need to do. We can’t close the digital divide unless I get the Prospect bus line digitized. If we receive this federal grant, I’d be able to do that faster than I’d otherwise be able to do.”
The other cities named as finalists for the $50 million award were: Austin, Columbus, Pittsburg, Denver, Portland and San Francisco. Kansas City will find out if it’s the ultimate winner of the award in June.