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How Columbus, Ohio parlayed $50 million into $500 million for a smart city transportation network

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Turning $50 million into $500 million is one of the greatest feats that Columbus, Ohio has ever accomplished.

In June 2016, the city of Columbus landed a much-coveted $40 million grant from the US Department of Transportation and $10 million from Vulcan Inc. as part of the federal Smart City Challenge. The city won the funding in large part because of the it’s close partnership with the Columbus business community. Columbus has already turned that original $50 million into half a billion dollars, thanks to an array of investments from the private sector, and more is expected.

Columbus officials are skilled at putting together public-private partnerships. In just two months, from when the federal grant was announced in December 2015 until applications were due in February 2016, officials were able to pull together $90 million in pledges from local businesses around Columbus. The private funding supported the city’s goal to transform its transportation system with electric vehicle deployment and other carbon emission reduction strategies if it received the federal grant.

“We’ve set a goal of $1 billion in private sector money in the next four years,” said Alex Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, while speaking at Smart Cities NYC ’17 in early May in Brooklyn, NY.

SEE: Columbus, Ohio: What’s next for the DoT Smart City Challenge winner (TechRepublic)

That additional support of $90 million, combined with the $40 million from the DoT, which would be paid out over a four-year period, and the $10 million from Vulcan Inc., would put the total funding at $140 million at the start of the project, which impressed federal officials. A total of 78 cities applied for the grant, and seven finalists were chosen. Columbus won out over the other finalist cities including Austin, TX, Denver, CO, Kansas City, MO and San Francisco because of the extra funding support, said Mark Dowd, former deputy assistant secretary for research and technology for the DoT, while speaking at the Smart Cities NYC ’17 conference.

“One of the reasons why Columbus was so compelling was because of people like Alex [Fischer] and his organization, because this was not going to be just a federal initiative, or a philanthropic initiative, it had to be a partnership,” Dowd said.

“Everything about the US DoT Smart City Challenge Grant moved at lightning speed – especially for government. Alex Fischer deserves a lot of the credit for assembling the local CEOs. The proposal sold itself. It was clear that winning the Smart City Challenge would thrust Columbus into the forefront of the future of the mobility industry. Our proposal focused on enhancements in technology and mobility that will make living in Columbus better. That was easy for businesses to get behind,” said Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther.
Spencer Reeder, senior program officer of climate and energy for Vulcan Inc., said, “What emerged for Columbus was their ambition was just as great as any of the other cities and they were in a much lower place than any of the other cities in the transportation space. We saw this great unified front from the city of Columbus from the business community, portions of the city government, and the metro area.”

The funding in Columbus now sits at $500 million. Some of the funding includes investments from the following organizations:

$170 million from American Electric Power
$64 million from Ohio State University
$35 million from the state of Ohio
$9 million from IGS Energy
$7.5 million from the formation of a new smart city accelerator by Singularity University
$2 million from Nationwide
“Local businesses play a huge role in the success of Smart Columbus. We’re not talking about adding a parking lot or more lanes to our freeways. We’re talking about the reinvention of mobility – data exchange, truck platooning, autonomous vehicles, electric vehicle adoption. We have some of the best talent in transportation and technology here right now with the Ohio State University, Honda, Siemens and Battelle,” Ginther said.

The drive for private funding came about, Fischer explained, after he returned from the World Economic Forum in mid-January 2016 with Ginther, who had just took office on Jan. 1, 2016.

“We met with Spencer [Reeder] and other US DoT folks that were taking a look at this and it sparked an idea,” Fischer said. They were inspired to develop the financial match of $90 million against the $50 million from the DoT and Vulcan to show the depth of partnership and collaboration that exists in Columbus.

Mike Keller, CIO of Nationwide, which is headquartered in Columbus, said that the existing Columbus Partnership was a major reason the city was able to pull together the funding so quickly. “There was already a high degree of public/private/academic participation prior to the grant and that made it a lot easier to come together.”

Fischer said the city is currently in a state of chaos as it plans for the application of the grant funding, but that it’s a fun chaos. “The world is coming at us so quickly and we’re absolutely committed to that platform of chaos. We are part of the urban fabric that will define the cities of the future and it’s really exciting for us to be in that mix and have a group of private leaders who are willing to put up their capital and get involved, and have a mayor willing to hire a chief innovation officer.” The chief innovation officer, Michael Stevens, began working for the city in March this year.

The funding will be used to turn Columbus into the nation’s first city to fully integrate self-driving electric vehicles, smart grids, smart streetlights and collision avoidance sensors as part of its transportation system. It will create smart transit corridors and address the “first and last mile gap” in public transportation.

Stevens said, “For true success, we’re going to focus on what’s going to happen in four years when the grant’s timetable is over. How will that impact long term for Columbus, how will it position Columbus in the central Ohio region in a way that it has a long term growth impact on our economy.”

Vulcan became involved because its philanthropic group was focusing on how to work with cities, with cities as agents for change. “This was just a few months before it became apparent that transportation would be the number one generator of greenhouse gases. It overtook electricity as the number one source,” Reeder said.

As a result, Vulcan tied its philanthropic objectives to the grid. “The number of miles that Americans drive every day, aggregate miles that we drive every day, are 8.5 billion miles per day. So if you understand that most of those miles are being fueled by an internal combustion engine, if we can start to chip away at that and electrify our transportation,” Reeder said.

Fischer said, “We’re a group of business leaders that proudly stand up and say that we acknowledge that climate change is real.”

But beyond climate change, Columbus wants to become a carbon neutral community and the electric vehicles that will be an essential part of the change to its transportation system will play a strong role in that plan.

Three takeaways for TechRepublic readers:
Columbus, Ohio city officials have turned a $40 million DoT grant and $10 million from Vulcan Inc. into $500 million in private-public funding.
The city works closely with local businesses to partner on its smart city initiative.
Columbus has a goal of becoming a carbon neutral community and electric vehicles will play a major role.

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