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Feds And Seattle-based Vulcan To Pay $50M For Best Traffic Solution

Washington Department of Transportation
Traffic in Seattle, one of several Northwest cities eligible to apply for the USDOT's Smart City Challenge.

The U.S. Department of Transportation and Paul Allen's company Vulcan Inc. are teaming up to stage a $40 million to $50 million winner-take-all competition. The prize will go to the "mid-sized" American city that comes up with the best plan to use technology of any sort to improve mobility and reduce pollution. 

Vulcan president Barbara Bennett said her company and the feds independently thought of doing a competition and then joined forces.

"This is the sort of project that we like," said Bennett. "Partnering with others to develop innovative, scalable, proof-of-concept solutions that address some of the world's most urgent challenges."

In the Northwest, cities that meet the population criteria to compete for this prize include Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, Portland and Boise. The deadline to submit an entry into what's being called the Smart City Challenge is February 4, 2016.

A selection committee at USDOT will select five semi-finalists in the spring. Those cities will get help from USDOT and Vulcan to refine their proposals. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said he will announce the lone winner in June.

In Seattle, a city spokesman said officials had just learned of the prize competition Monday and were uncertain if they would devote resources to compete.

"We want to review the challenge's application process to ensure if Seattle is a good fit for the program," said Seattle Department of Transportation spokesman Rick Sheridan. "The challenge is in line with our current focus to embrace technology."

During a conference call with reporters Monday, Foxx said the Federal Highway Administration has set aside $40 million for the winning city to carry out its transformation. Vulcan is offering an additional $10 million from Seattle billionaire Allen's philanthropic funds.

Foxx said he has no preconceived notions about what strategy a city should pursue to rise to the top of the heap.

"We encourage cities to develop their own unique visions, partnerships and blueprints to demonstrate to the world what a fully integrated, forward-looking transportation network looks like," Foxx said.

The technical criteria for the competition give some clues as to what elements a contestant might employ to produce a winning vision. Those include connected and autonomous vehicles, vehicle-to-vehicle communication, "intelligent, sensor-based infrastructure," smart grid, data analytics, roadway electrification, land use planning, citizen involvement and sharing economy partnerships.

The Vulcan webpage devoted to the Smart City project makes it clear that Allen's team is particularly interested in supporting electrification of transportation to reduce the amount of global warming pollution spewing from vehicle tailpipes.

The competition is open to cities with an established public transportation system and a population of approximately 200,000 to 850,000.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.