Raleigh Report

Raleigh pursuing $40M grant to build ‘smarter’ transit system

A Raleigh city bus departs Moore Square Transit Station in downtown Raleigh last month. Raleigh recently partnered with civil engineers at N.C. State University to develop a vision for a more high-tech transportation system.
A Raleigh city bus departs Moore Square Transit Station in downtown Raleigh last month. Raleigh recently partnered with civil engineers at N.C. State University to develop a vision for a more high-tech transportation system. cseward@newsobserver.com

Imagine an automated, driverless bus line between N.C. State University and downtown Raleigh.

Or traffic lights that change based on minute-by-minute traffic flow, or a system that provides a real-time glimpse of available downtown parking.

Raleigh hasn’t developed plans for these ideas, but they’re the type of innovations the U.S. Department of Transportation wants American cities to consider in an effort to make transportation more efficient and environmentally-friendly.

And the department is offering $40 million to the mid-sized city with the best ideas.

That’s why the city of Raleigh recently partnered with civil engineers at N.C. State University to develop a vision for a more high-tech transportation system, with hopes of securing DOT’s “Smart City Challenge” grant.

Applications are due to DOT by Feb. 4. Raleigh staff plans to present its proposal to the City Council during its meeting Tuesday, when council members can approve the application or abandon the idea if they don’t like the proposal.

Raleigh’s “smart-city” planners want to keep their ideas private until Tuesday’s meeting, said Eric Lamb, the city’s transportation planning manager.

“We need to be hush-hush because of the competition we’re up against,” Lamb said.

DOT plans to select five semifinalists in March and give each $100,000 to develop a more refined proposal – one with specific cost estimates and implementation target dates. The $40 million winner will be announced in June.

Raleigh is one of about 60 mid-sized U.S. cities – including Charlotte, Durham and Greensboro – eligible for the grant, Lamb said.

Cities must have between 200,000 and 850,000 residents within their limits, an existing public transportation system and an environment conducive to demonstrating proposed strategies, among other qualifications.

Regarding proposals, Lamb said DOT left its instructions intentionally vague so as not to hamstring creativity. However, the department asked applicants to develop a proposal that can be replicated in other cities.

“How do you propose something that’s bold enough and progressive enough to get us DOT’s attention, but still grounded enough so that other U.S. cities can actually do it?” Lamb said.

Raleigh’s smart-city planners are uncertain of their chances.

Raleigh is at a disadvantage, Lamb said, because the city doesn’t have existing plans on the books to adopt or welcome advanced transportation technology such as automated vehicles.

“As we talk about smart vehicles and smart grids, we don’t have any city policies on the books that we could use as guidance,” he told the council on Jan. 19.

“If you’re gonna be a contender, you’ve got to have a strong vision,” Lamb continued. “Our challenge is: how do we set ourselves apart from the pack?”

Raleigh may benefit from being an integral part of a countywide transit plan that Wake’s Board of Commissioners is expected to approve later this year.

Raleigh could propose a plan to integrate high-tech ideas into the Wake transit plan, Lamb said. The plan, which commissioners are likely to attempt to fund through a sales tax referendum this November, would add new bus routes and a commuter rail system between Raleigh and Durham by 2027.

Raleigh has several other advantages too, said Marc Hoit, NCSU’s vice chancellor for Information Technology and chief information officer. N.C. State is known for innovation and traffic engineering, is home to a transportation research institute and can use its campus as a test bed.

“This isn’t something we’re a stranger to,” Hoit said of his team.

Raleigh will soon have access to high-speed Internet through Google Fiber and AT&T, he noted, and the Triangle is home to many tech companies that could provide the equipment needed for innovative projects.

“We have a lot of technology vendors and developers that could partner with us,” Hoit said. “I think we’ve got a pretty strong chance.”

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht

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