Columbus, Ohio skyline
Columbus’ Smart City transportation strategy includes more electric vehicles and charging stations.

DALLAS – Columbus, Ohio will serve as the national laboratory for self-driving cars and other transportation innovations by taking the top spot in the Transportation Department's Smart City Challenge grant competition.

Columbus outscored finalists Austin, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Portland, Ore., for the $40 million federal grant. The seven were selected from 78 applications for the grant.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced the Smart City Challenge grant in December. The seven finalists were selected in March.

The grant, which will pay for innovative upgrades to the transportation network in Columbus, will be boosted with $90 million of local public and private sector matching funds. The supporting contributions include $19 million from local governments and the rest from area businesses and organizations.

Partners in the Columbus proposal include Battelle, Clean Fuels Ohio, American Electric Power Co. Inc., and Ohio State University.

Efforts in the Smart City program will include converting more of Central Ohio Transit Authority's transit buses to compressed natural gas and buying additional electric cars and vehicles for the city's fleet.

Innovative efforts include a fleet of autonomous vehicles that would pick up passengers at a bus terminal and take them to jobs and shops at a nearby retail center.

The city also promised development of a smartphone app that could be customized to provide real-time information on traffic, parking, and transit options for specific events.

"We want Columbus to be synonymous for intelligent transportation systems in the same way Silicon Valley is synonymous for information technology," the city said in its successful application.

Winning the Smart City race means that Columbus will also receive a $10 million grant from Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen's Vulcan Inc.

Vulcan's president, Barbara Bennett, said the grant would support electric vehicle deployment and other carbon emission reduction strategies that are a part of Allen's anti-global warming campaign.

Foxx said the Transportation Department would work with federal agencies and private sector partners to help all the unsuccessful applicants move forward with the ideas they developed for the Smart City competition.

The overall aim of the challenge was to identify where advanced or smart technologies could be used improve infrastructure, with the winning city deemed to be a blueprint for the future, Foxx said.

More than 150 industry and nonprofit groups pledged about $500 million of resources and technology to support proposals from the seven cities, he said.

"There has been a remarkable spirit of cooperation as these cities moved through the competition, and working together with our partners, we are excited to help empower all seven finalists to move forward in creating smart cities," Foxx said.

Vulcan will lead the effort to bring in other philanthropists who can provide additional funding to support the climate and electrification efforts of the six unsuccessful finalists and others, Bennett said.

DC Solar said it will provide $1.5 million in mobile solar power products to Columbus and help the other six develop their own network electric vehicle charging stations.

The selection of the Smart City champion was to be officially announced at a Thursday news conference in Columbus with Foxx and city dignitaries, but Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, broke the news on Tuesday.

The federal grant is a "game changer" for the city and central Ohio, Brown said.

"I'm glad the Department of Transportation recognized what so many of us already know," he said. "Columbus is a smart city that deserves to win this challenge."

The pledge of the matching funds by the local private sector was a big factor in Columbus' victory, said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

"This grant, combined with its public-private investment, will help reshape the transportation sector in central Ohio for decades to come," he said.

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