Denver Proposal Calls for Smarter Electric and Autonomous Vehicles

Denver was named one of seven finalists in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge last week, inching the city closer toward receiving up to $50 million in tech-centric transportation funding.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx formally announced the finalists during a transportation conference at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, TX, on March 12. “The level of excitement and energy the Smart City Challenge has created around the country far exceeded our expectations,” Foxx said in a statement. “After an overwhelming response — 78 applications total — we chose to select seven finalists instead of five because of their outstanding potential to transform the future of urban transportation.”

The U.S. DOT has pledged up to $40 million in funding for the challenge’s eventual winner in an attempt to create the nation’s most tech-savvy transportation network, complete with self-driving cars, dozens of electric vehicle charging stations, and a web of mobile hotspots. Paul Allen’s Vulcan, a Seattle-based philanthropic investment firm, pledged an additional $10 million to the winning city shortly after the challenge was issued in December 2015.

Denver joins six other finalists in the fight for the $50 million pot: Austin, Columbus, OH; Kansas City, MO; Pittsburgh, Portland, OR; and San Francisco. Each of the seven finalists will receive a $100,000 stipend in the coming months to fine-tune their applications. Denver was the only city in Colorado to submit an application for the U.S. DOT challenge, according to a list of applicants on the DOT’s website. The City and County of Denver teamed with the State, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Regional Transportation District to prepare the challenge application.

In its formal application, Denver outlined a slew of uber-modern goals and initiatives intended to bolster the city’s transportation system and provide some much needed traffic relief for its increasingly clogged asphalt arteries.

Every aspect of the city’s grant application is tethered to the maxim “connect more with less.” The 29-page document outlines dozens of futuristic programs that the city aims to implement with the potential grant money, including autonomous vehicle corridors to the north, south, and east; vehicle-to-device transmission sensors; and the integration of electric cars into the municipal vehicle fleet. Specifically, the application pinpoints three areas of technological emphasis: increased mobile use through apps and Wi-Fi kiosks, more electric vehicles, and a friendlier physical and legislative environment for autonomous vehicles. There were 70 publicly and privately operated electric vehicle charging stations spread across the city as of February, according to the grant application.

Another cornerstone of the city’s grant proposal is tied to public data. With the additional funds, Denver would unify hundreds of publicly available datasets, including information on bike and ride sharing, public safety, and air quality. The city has already compiled 1,527 datasets relating to similar municipal information on OpenColorado.org.

Updating Denver’s transportation infrastructure has been a lingering concern for Denver politicos in recent years, with population increases expected to strain an already packed maze of highways and arterials, according to Steve Erickson, spokesman for the Denver Regional Council of Governments.

“This is a challenging and exciting time for transportation planning in our region; with the regional population expected to grow to more than 4 million people by 2035, we’re exploring a wide array of options to improve mobility in the region,” Erickson wrote in an e-mail. “While DRCOG is focused on making smart use of the limited funding available and encouraging adoption of new modes, we see promise in the emergence of new technologies that will change the way we get around.”

2015 report compiled by DRCOG on roadway traffic congestion in the metro area states that the average weekday travel speed will drop six miles per hour by 2040. In the same time frame, the report says that the metro area is expected to see a 10 percent jump in the number of roadways that become severely clogged for at least three hours per day.

In the meantime, light rail is seen by many Denverites as the lynchpin in the future of transportation in the metro area, as several new rail lines, including the highly anticipated “A” line to Denver International Airport, begin commercial operations in the coming months. The DRCOG report states that total weekday RTD boardings are expected to swell 140 percent by 2040, with more than 825,000 people using public transit daily by that time. Light rail boardings alone are expected to jump from an average of 70,000 weekday boardings to 258,000 in the next 25 years.

The winning city in the Smart City Challenge will be announced in June, according to the U.S. DOT.

Quincy Snowdon is a staff writer with the Aurora Sentinel, reporting on the arts, entertainment and business. He lives in Denver. Follow @QuincySnowdon

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