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Columbus Has One Year to Make Its Transportation ‘Smart’

In 2016 Columbus, Ohio, won a national competition to become America’s Smart City. But four years and an extension later, the city still has several projects to complete before the upcoming 2021 deadline.

(TNS) — U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx ticked off the ways the Smart City challenge grant would change Columbus, Ohio.

Standing behind a podium in Linden's Douglas Recreation Center in June 2016, Foxx said the federal government's four-year, $40 million award would help the city link pregnant women in a neighborhood suffering from high rates of infant mortality to doctor's offices.

As the winner of the national competition, Columbus also would be able to deploy autonomous shuttles at Easton, platoon semi-trucks to improve traffic flow and develop a first-of-its-kind autonomous vehicle corridor.

"In other words, this challenge has proven that we aren't just about technology for technology's sake. It's about making a direct impact on the mobility and quality of life, and the future of this community. So goes this challenge, so goes America," Foxx told the assembled dignitaries.

Four years since Columbus became America's Smart City, though, some of those ideas still haven't materialized. Other projects have been delayed or are behind schedule.

Columbus hasn't completely transformed into a transportation innovation hub, but officials involved say it has made progress.

"(Smart Cities) was a test to allow Columbus as a community to practice, to test out, how technology could positively change and impact the lives of individuals," City Council President Shannon G. Hardin told The Dispatch. "With tests, and with trials, come successes. But sometimes, (there is) certainly need for readjustment."

Columbus received a $40 million grant from the federal government and $10 million from Vulcan and added $18 million in matching funds from the city, Franklin County, the Ohio Department of Transportation and Ohio State University in 2016.

The private sector added millions of dollars more through in-kind contributions.

While Columbus celebrated winning the competition in June 2016, it didn't receive the grant award until August. Originally, the city was to develop projects and then collect data for the federal government to show whether they could be replicated in other cities.

That was to be done over four years. But Smart Columbus received an extension, and the program with the federal government now runs through the middle of 2021.

"The grant was always a seed for a bigger opportunity for our community," said Jordan Davis, Smart Columbus director for the Columbus Partnership. "In so many ways we're setting a foundation for how we think about the future of our community and what a city may look like in 50 or 100 years."

Ohio State committed about $15 million in cash and in-kind contributions to the project, but also brought expertise from its College of Engineering, said David Cooke, senior associate director from OSU's Center for Automotive Research.

Ohio State researchers are helping evaluate most of the Smart Columbus projects, and he said those always were meant to be pilot projects, not technology that would be immediately distributed across the entire city.

"They're the key indicators of where we invest in the future," Cooke said.

Since that 2016 news conference, Smart Columbus has had some successes.

It launched the Smart Columbus Operating System, the umbrella that covers all of the other projects promised under the grant. The system aggregates data for the public and software developers.

The open-source code for the system was released in 2019 so other cities could use it.

It also built a Smart Columbus "Experience Center" Downtown that acts as a showroom for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids and doubles as office space for the project.

An autonomous shuttle called Smart Circuit ran for 10 months along the Scioto Mile. It could hold up to six people, including an on-board operator who could take control of the shuttle.

It worked with an app called Wayfinder to help people with cognitive disabilities find their way around through a 23-person pilot program.

Smart Columbus beat its electrification program's goal of having at least 3,200 electric vehicles adopted by March 2020. It expects to hit its goal of 1,000 charging stations for vehicles in a seven-county region by the end of the year. By Dec. 31, the region had 826 ports installed.

The $10 million Vulcan grant, which will be spent by the end of October, paid for electrification efforts.

Other related projects started to orbit Smart Columbus too. For instance, Honda plans to install 200 "on-board units" in employee vehicles by this fall to help drivers detect potential collisions or when traffic signals are about to turn.

And the state of Ohio launched Drive Ohio as the clearinghouse for autonomous vehicles in the state. Drive Ohio is leading the creation of a "Smart Mobility Corridor" for testing autonomous technology on a 35-mile stretch of Route 33 northwest of Columbus.

But Smart Columbus also has had fits and starts, with some projects sputtering.

Just weeks into running self-driving shuttles in Linden, in February one suddenly stopped, throwing a passenger to the floor. The passenger was treated and released from the hospital, but the incident forced Smart Columbus to park the two 12-passenger shuttles, pending changes. Shuttles should restart by September, said Mandy Bishop, Smart Columbus program manager for the city, but officials are watching social distancing requirements during the coronavirus pandemic.

A plan to platoon trucks so that they could move more efficiently over highways was eliminated, according to quarterly progress reports.

A trip-planning tool that was supposed to allow users to plan their route using multiple forms of transportation — including buses and scooters — launched in beta form in 2019 as "Pivot," but a payment system that was supposed to be part of the application still isn't available.

In documents filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation, Smart Columbus noted that the state's shutdown to stop the spread of COVID-19 has affected travel patterns and slowed the release of some projects.

A plan to retrofit 1,800 vehicles with technology that could interact in a "connected vehicle environment" is expected to be cut significantly because of the coronavirus, documents show.

"A large percentage of the workforce is working from home," Bishop said.

She said the plan now is to retrofit up to 1,200 vehicles, including 350 to 500 private vehicles, with the rest distributed on emergency vehicles, COTA buses and other city vehicles, for a test project along the North High Street, Morse Road and Cleveland Avenue corridors. Bishop said Smart Columbus will begin recruiting people from the community soon.

The coronavirus also was expected to affect the rollout of a common-payment system in the multimodal trip planning application, as well as recruitment for participants in a prenatal trip assistance program in Linden, according to Smart Columbus' most recent quarterly report.

Bishop said 141 women are participating in the prenatal trip program.

Six "smart mobility hubs," kiosks with WiFi where people can find different transportation options to plan trips, should be ready to go by the end of July after construction was to begin in fall 2019, Bishop said. The locations will be at Columbus State, the Linden Transit Center, St. Stephens Community House, the Columbus Public Library's Linden branch, Northern Lights Park and Ride and the Easton Transit Center.

The community is getting other benefits, as well. Delegations from 80 cities and 20 countries visited Columbus to learn about the programs here, said Jennifer Fening, a Smart Columbus spokeswoman, giving the city more exposure.

Fening said another $720 million has been invested by organizations throughout the region in mobility innovation, education and more. That includes $124 million for a wind tunnel and $49 million for a smart mobility center at the Transportation Research Center between Marysville and Bellefontaine, and $110 million for smart roads and signals.

Hardin said Smart Columbus spent much of its first year figuring out how to work with officials in Washington, D.C.

The city signed the grant agreement about two months before President Donald Trump was elected, and Hardin said project leaders feared that they would not be approved for future funding allocations as administrations changed.

The U.S. Department of Transportation did not respond to a request for comment.

Alex Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, said there has been better progress with some efforts than others.

"We tried some things that worked, others that don't," Fischer said. "Plans have been refined and changed. Things have not worked as well as anticipated. Some got done ahead of schedule."

Fischer said area businesses will continue to focus on new technology.

"Microtransit. Renewable energy. A carbon neutral society. All are going to be platforms that the partnership continues to build on," he said. "The private sector is planning to make sure the things started don't just stop."

Patrick Harris, a COTA spokesman, said the Smart City award transformed the mindset of the community, including that of the transit authority's officials, citing the Wayfinder app and electric charging stations at COTA park-and-ride lots.

"Transit is really a key component of how we move forward as a smart city. That's something that really came out of the project," said Joshua Lapp, chair of the board for Transit Columbus.

©2020 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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