Reporter with Silicon Hills News

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx with Mayor Steve Adler and members of the city council.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx with Mayor Steve Adler and members of the city council.

Comparing his journey this week to that of an American Idol judge, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx visited Austin Tuesday morning to meet with leaders from one of seven finalists vying for a $40 million Smart City Challenge grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Foxx is travelling the country to meet with city leaders of all of the finalists. But instead of picking the next singing sensation, Foxx is looking for the most innovative city when it comes to dealing with transportation issues. He visited Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio on Monday and Denver Tuesday afternoon for roundtable discussions. He will visit San Francisco and Portland, Oregon on Wednesday and Kansas City, Missouri on Friday.

At Austin City Hall, Foxx met with Austin Mayor Steve Adler, City Manager Marc Ott, members of the Austin City Council, city staff and community leaders during an hour-long roundtable discussion.

During a press conference following the roundtable, Foxx said that Uber and Lyft recently leaving Austin did not affect the city’s standing as a finalist in the Smart City Challenge. Austin voters recently struck down Proposition One. Uber and Lyft stopped operations in Austin because Proposition One didn’t succeed. It would have struck down stricter regulations of Transportation Network Companies including fingerprint background checks.

“I wouldn’t be here if Austin wasn’t a strong contender in the challenge,” Foxx said. “That remains true.”

Mayor Adler also said he was confident the city would come up with a solution to provide Austin citizens with more ride sharing options.

During the roundtable discussion, Foxx said smart cities are needed because the U.S. has aging infrastructure and faces enormous population growth, adding 70 million people in the next 30 years across the country. And the U.S. is seeing a 45 percent increase in demand on its freight systems and 65 percent more trucks on the road in the coming decades, Foxx said.

“This challenge comes at a very important time in our nation’s trajectory…. Our investments have been going down,” Foxx said. “Pressure on our system has been going up.”

The Smart City Challenge is designed to create a really aggressive set of ideas about the future of transportation, Foxx said. The challenge kicked off last December and had a short turnaround time intentionally, he said. They originally wanted to name five finalists but the same seven cities kept popping up to the top of the list so they named seven finalists, Foxx said.

To win the Smart City Challenge, a city can’t make stuff up, Foxx said.

“It has to be actual challenges your city faces,” he said. “You can’t have something about dog sleds providing transportation.”

Foxx also said that pie in the sky technology is not a competitive advantage.

“We’re not interested in technology for technology’s sake,” he said. “We’re not interested in finding the coolest gizmos…The question is how are we going to use the available technology. How can we shape these cities in the challenge against that back drop?”

A smart city thinks about its entire community, Foxx said. It thinks about a holistic vision of transportation. The smart city winner integrates innovative technologies like self driving cars, connected vehicles and smart sensors into its transportation network.

“We think a smart city is a city that has a good idea about where it wants to be,” he said.

It also develops strategies that are practical and creates a roadmap on how it’s going to achieve its goals, he said.

Even before the Smart City Challenge, Austin was talking about 2016 being the year of mobility for the city, said Mayor Adler.

Affordability and mobility are the two most pressing issues in Austin right now, Adler said. Those two things are intertwined, he said.

“Independent of this challenge, Austin already started doing things to address its traffic congestion and mobility issues,” Adler said.

Austin is the fastest growing city in the country for four years running and it also has one of the worst traffic problems in the country. It’s also one of the most economically segregated cities in the country, Adler said. Equity and access are issues Austin is grappling with and working to come up with solutions, he said.

“We are already moving forward with technology,” he said. “This is a city that embraces new ideas.”

Austin would love to win the challenge, Adler said. It’s a path the city is on and the challenge represents a chance for the community to come together to address some major issues.

And it’s not just an important issue for Austin, but for all of Texas, Adler said. Austin has formed a transportation research triangle with Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas A&M Transportation Institute in College Station and the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas at Austin along with collaboration from Huston-Tillotson University and Texas State University.

“We’re going to do this regardless,” Adler said.

As Austin moves forward, the city’s proposal has evolved, said Robert Goode, Austin’s Assistant City Manager for Transportation Service. Austin also incorporated some ideas from other city proposals into its own proposal, he said. One idea is from Kansas City for a bus rapid transit system in Austin, Goode said.

Austin also wants to have an annual smart city conference and plans to partner with SXSW to put that on, Goode said.

Overall, Austin’s proposal includes a mobility innovation center with cooperation from TXDOT and Capital Metro. It also has plans for a traffic management center and it is creating an open data portal to share transportation research information. Capital Metro also plans to do a pilot program with RideScout, now known as Moovel, to create a smart card or smart app to allow someone to schedule all the different transportation modes in one place.

The city is also launching some geographic pilots, called smart stations, Goode said. For example, one is to be located at the airport and it will work with autonomous vehicles.

Another station is planned for Pflugerville, a place where communities of color have moved to in large numbers as a result of affordability issues. The city plans a shared transit model to allow people to schedule a ride into the city for healthcare visits or groceries or other errands through a fleet of vans.

Austin is also partnering with Google to work on creating an automated last mile transportation system at the MetroRail Red line station. Google is testing a fleet of autonomous cars already on Austin streets in a pilot program. It was the second location Google chose to test its self-driving cars outside of its headquarters in Mountain View, California.

One of the goals of the Austin transportation program is to help those who haven’t had access to transportation, said Linda Watson, president and CEO of Capital Metro.

About 150,000 people work in downtown Austin, Watson said. For every dollar a person saves by moving to an outlying area, they spend 70 cents to get back downtown, she said.

Good transportation provides access to opportunity, said Colette Burnette, president of Huston-Tillotson University.

“Transportation is the biggest barrier my students have to their success,” Burnette said.

Austin is losing its creatives, its musicians and its diversity, Adler said. He asked Austin City Councilwoman Ora Houston her opinion on why black people keep moving out of the city.

Segregation in Austin goes back to a 1920 plan that forced minorities to move east of Intrastate 35, Houston said. Intrastate 35 was the dividing line between the haves and the have nots, said Houston, who grew up in Austin.

But overall, it’s a complex mix of issues that is leading black people to leave Austin, Houston said. The city needs to take the issues on collectively and holistically. It also needs to make sure it remains an inclusive place for everyone, she said.

In the press conference following the roundtable, Foxx said congestion on Intrastate 35 mirrors congestion on major highways in other parts of the country. It’s a result of under investing in our infrastructure, he said.

“Our country is not getting out of this ditch anytime soon,” he said.

Overall, Austin faces a number of challenges from its significant population growth, urban sprawl, suburban poverty and congestion.

Austin needs to figure out how it can be the best Austin it is capable of being, Foxx said.

Austin is also a hotbed of autonomous car research. Every one of the seven cities is going to play to its strengths, Foxx said.

Final applications are due May 24th and the winner will be announced in June. The winning city will also receive assistance from a group of selected partners including Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc., Mobileye, Autodesk, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, Amazon Web Services and NXP. Vulcan Philanthropy has pledged $10 million in additional funding to the winner.