Portland narrowly misses Smart City transportation grant

Self-driving cars, or autonomous vehicles, were once the stuff of dreams. Now at the height of increasing urbanization, cities across America, including Portland, are itching to implement this technology and other intelligent transportation systems, or ITS.

Earlier this month, Portland was one of seven city finalists for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s $40 million Smart City grant, focused on enhancing transportation research and technology. The grant was awarded to Columbus, Ohio earlier this month. A smart city, according to the Smart Cities Council, is an urban area that uses technology to enhance city functions in an environmentally and economically sustainable way.

According to the USDOT website, the department was looking to invest in a mid-sized city that could reveal to the U.S. over time how collected data and Intelligent Transportation Services could reduce traffic congestion, improve safety, amp up inclusion and reduce environmental impact.

Speculation varies as to why Portland—described by current U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx as having a “leading edge” in the world of transportation—wasn’t chosen.

Technology Association of Oregon President Skip Newberry pointed to geographic availability for testing as a likely factor in the decision, noting it as an area of emphasis by USDOT.

“Columbus had an area where they were willing to test out autonomous vehicle technology,” Newberry said. “That was an area we were caught a little flat footed…it was all very conceptual [for us].”

Autonomous vehicles, Newberry said, can reduce accident-causing human error. An increase in autonomous vehicles could also mean an easier transition to fewer cars in general as biking and public transportation are emphasized.

It’s possible, according to Jonathan Fink, vice president of research at PSU, that politics played a role.

“Oregon is not very important from a political national standpoint,” Fink said. “Giving us extra money isn’t going to change anything large.”

While Oregon remains an obvious blue state in the 2016 election, Ohio has been named by publications like the Washington Post as a crucial swing state.

Research published by Vanderbilt University in 2011 shows that federal funding will often go to swing states to sway voters in the direction of the current president or their party.

Newberry also believes it could have something to do with the private sector. Other finalists had donor matches for the $40 million of federal money from within the city.

Despite the recent loss, Portland’s dreams of transportation innovation are far from over. Many of the plans written into the Smart City grant proposal are still in the works for the city.

The Ubiquitous Mobile “UB Mobile” application, an app intended to help users of public transit make the most convenient, economic and sustainable choices, is something that Newberry believes could be created for $5 million.

“The technology is probably the least difficult aspect of these projects,” Newberry added.

Another larger project discussed in the grant proposal, the Southeast Powell/Division bus rapid transit line, is expected to take off in four to six years. First implemented in Brazil, BRT is a fusion between busses and light rails. Because it involves no rails, these transit systems can evolve with changing traffic flows over time.

Unlike buses, BRT systems can hold many more commuters and many people can board at once instead of one at a time.

According to Oregon Metro, people board buses on Powell and Division street 18,000 times a day. “We wanted to improve the whole commute route for workers who lived in [East Portland] and worked in the north part,” Fink said. The line would travel to Gresham, north of Southeast Portland, and possibly make the commute easier for those living in diverse communities in East Portland.

The Powell/Division corridor is one of a few projects that the City of Portland, in conjunction with PSU, is working on through the Metrolab Network.

The Metrolab Network, part of the White House’s Smart Cities Initiative, is a group of 34 city-university pairs, each working on different projects in their own city. The network met last September at the White House, where university representatives and representatives of each city gathered.

“We sat around for about four hours, talking about what the value of this kind of network might have,” Fink said.

Back in September when the Metrolab Network was beginning, many cities chose to focus their Smart City projects on sewage, trash or water management. It seemed only natural that Portland’s focus in the network would be on transportation.

“PSU has a very strong transportation research group, it has for quite awhile. We’ve had a series of large grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation,” Fink said.

Fink said that this year has been about getting started. Soon PSU and Portland hope to extend research opportunities to more students from departments like engineering, computer science, geography and urban planning. Like the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at PSU, the Metrolab Network hopes to eventually involve capstone projects in its work.