Feds set to launch new $500M program for transportation tech

The process to award $500 million in federal aid that states and local governments can use to pay for small transportation projects will begin later this month.

Funding for the competitive program called Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionary Transportation, or SMART, was included in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill President Biden signed last year. The law calls for $100 million annually for five years for the grant initiative. States, localities and tribes are among those eligible to apply for the funds, as well as a handful of other entities such as transit agencies, toll authorities and metropolitan planning organizations.

It aims to fund projects that demonstrate how technologies such as autonomous vehicles, roadside sensors and aerial drones can be incorporated into transport systems to solve problems such as traffic congestion, accidents and the lack of options for people to get to work.

“We know there’s a ton of energy at a Department of Transportation or a transit agency or a local government, and we’re incredibly focused on targeting problems that communities are trying to solve,” said Ben Levine, senior advisor for research and technology at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“I think the big vision of this kind of program is to seed ideas that are then developed or demonstrated in the country and then they can be new methods that can be adopted across the country,” he said. Levine was speaking on a panel discussion this week at the Smart City Expo USA conference in Miami Beach, where governments are using technology to improve social equity and help address other pressing issues.

The Department of Transportation, which oversees the SMART program, said it will issue a grant opportunity announcement for the grant initiative this month, which is the first step in the grant application process. Levine repeated that timeline.

He also explained how the subsidy will be released in two phases. The first is the planning and prototyping phase, and the awardees will receive approximately $2 million each. From that group, the department selects finalists for individual awards of approximately $15 million to pursue projects.

There are opportunities for regional partnerships under the program. And the department encourages collaboration between qualified governments and companies, academic institutions and community organizations, Levin said.

The law stipulates that no more than 40% of grants can go to projects that “primarily benefit” communities with at least 400,000 people, and no more than 30% can go to projects that primarily benefit rural or middle-income communities. Regions that are not rural but have a population size of less than 400,000.

The program echoes the Smart City Challenge, which was launched in late 2015 by the Obama administration to provide up to $40 million in funding for a city to adopt innovative transportation technology. Columbus, Ohio won that giveaway.

“I think we realized that that model has done a lot…,” Levine said of the smart city challenge. “I think we really focused on institutionalizing the movement across the country.”

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