Kansas City’s bold ambitions for a next-generation transportation system may be down — but they’re not out.
On June 22, Kansas City received news that it lost out on a $50 million award that would’ve revolutionized its transportation system. More than 120 public and private leaders collaborated on Kansas City’s pitch for the “Beyond Traffic, Smart City Challenge,” for which the city was among seven finalists.
Among many initiatives, Kansas City would have used the funds to build a network of automated buses, revitalize the Prospect corridor, and connect citizens to smart city innovation. Kansas City emerged as a top finalist for the award, but ultimately the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the funds to Columbus, leaving area officials asking “what’s next?”
While its plan has now changed, Kansas City’s hundreds of hours of work on a futuristic transportation proposal won’t go to waste.
Despite the less-than-welcome outcome, people closest to the grant process are excited about new opportunities that came about as a result of the challenge. Among the biggest wins is that Kansas City will still have significant transportation funding coming its way, according to Bob Bennett, Kansas City’s chief innovation officer.
“I’m tracking as of today, that we should be able to bring somewhere between $30 to $36 million worth of projects to Kansas City as a result of the partnerships we cultivated through the planning process,” Bennett said. “I can’t get into those right now because they’re still in development.”
In addition to money for the undisclosed projects, Bennett said he plans to move forward with several of the grant’s objectives. His first priority will be to execute within three years the Prospect MAX bus line as it’s envisaged in the original grant, he added. The new MAX rapid bus line would increase mobility throughout the Prospect corridor, creating faster bus routes and interactive kiosks offering real-time transit information and wireless internet access.
The second priority, Bennett said, will be smart city data management, which will transition Kansas City from being a “cool city” to a “smart city.”
“Cool cities have stuff and toys and IoT apparatuses hanging off of light poles — stuff you can take pictures of and crow about a little bit,” he said. “But you’re not a smart city until you have data, you have a data collection plan and you have data analytics that you use to subsequently make decisions.”
In addition to various initiatives still in the works, the grant effort engendered other unexpected benefits.
Kansas City is still ahead of the competition on smart city efforts.
Bennett said that thanks to the grant, the city now has a specified budget for a transportation plan that partner organizations are committed to. Having that plan will make it much easier for the city to pursue other federal grant opportunities that may even exceed the $50 million mark, he added.
“I remain committed to Kansas City becoming the smartest city on planet earth in five years,” Bennett said. “As cool as Columbus’ proposal was — and it was freakishly cool — it’s going to take them three years to stand up. We’ve already got it on Main Street. I’ve done the pilot, and we’ve learned some lessons the hard way. I intend to apply those lessons and I intend to get this city to move forward regardless. … We’re going to get there. It’s just going to be a little harder to do that’s all.”
There were “awesome” lessons learned along the way.
Among the top takeaways is that continued collaboration will be a priority moving forward, said Bennett. Cities aren’t always the best at engaging in specific communities, he added, and there are likely community groups or non-profits that have better ideas.
Second, Kansas City must embrace true public-private partnership, Bennett said.
“We have to say that the city is open for business and it’s OK if individuals make money by working with the city,” he said. “You have to figure out ways for everyone to win, and that means we can’t be inflexible. This process proves that we could do it.”
Finally, the city learned that it had already serendipitously started on the right track for smart city expansion efforts, said Kate Garman, innovation analyst at Kansas City’s Office of Innovation. Garman was second in command behind Bennett on drafting the 95-page proposal.
“One awesome thing we learned was really how forward thinking our Phase I plan was for our existing smart city,” Garman said. “We have already installed along the streetcar corridor sensors that tell us road conditions as a result of weather, as well as WiFi. What we didn’t realize is that autonomous cars need two things: they need connectivity, and they need to know street conditions. By setting up our smart city, we actually implemented the perfect environment for driverless cars, and we’re the only city in the country that has it.”
The grant process also connected the area’s best and brightest minds.
Kansas City’s Office of Innovation, which led the grant process, collaborated with more than 120 people from area public, private and non-profit organizations to fully envision its smart city transportation plan.
One of the most personally motivating moments, Bennett said, was watching competitors come together for the betterment of the city.
“We have the greatest concentration of engineers in the country in this town,” Bennett said. “To watch these engineers from rival companies roll up their sleeves and bring in the perspectives and the emerging work being done at all those firms for the exclusive use of the city, to come up with the best possible solution for the maximum number of people — I definitely landed in the right job.”
Despite not winning the $50 million, the diversity of experts working side-by-side brought the city closer together, said Bennett.
One such contributor was Tom Esselman, CEO of digital-inclusion resource Connecting for Good. He helped develop the grant’s mobile learning lab objectives, which would have provided transportation between digital inclusion hubs while connecting people en-route with job and learning resources.
Although plans for the mobile learning lab are now on hold, Esselman said the benefits of collaboration outweigh his disappointment in not landing the funds.
“We became more engaged partners, which is really big, because I think up until now the city has done a lot to raise awareness of different issues, but this exercise was a tremendous chance for the city to become a fully engaged partner with community organizations,” Esselman said. “It really felt like everybody was rolling up their sleeves together.”
Esselman said the action-oriented nature of the grant process built results-focused partnerships between different organizations. For example, Connecting for Good is now a partner with the Full Employment Council on a summer intern program, he added, something that happened thanks to their close working relationship during the challenge.
“The more you can work together on projects that have specificity to them, where everybody is focused on projects that have a specific target and a goal, the easier it is to walk away and feel like you’ve got really strong, sustainable working relationships and partnerships,” Esselman said. “As a consequence, even though we didn’t wind up getting the grant, the relationships we built are much more productive and have the potential to be much more sustainable.”
The smart city transportation challenge journey ended up being more important than winning just one grant, Garman said, summarizing her experience.
“While we didn’t win, this was an amazing experience,” she said. “We are already on a roll, but with the vision that came out of this, we can go to even more extraordinary places.”