CMU grant shows Pittsburgh's growth as a transportation innovation center
December 12, 2016 12:00 AM
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx visited each of the seven Smart City grant finalists for a tour and group meeting with all of the agencies and organizations that would have been involved if the city received the grant.
Mayor Bill Peduto and Carnegie Mellon's Raj Rajkumar make a pitch for the Smart City grant. Pittsburgh did not receive the federal funding.
Uber's self-driving car.
By Ed Blazina / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh’s size, relationships and vision continue to raise the region’s transportation profile on a national level.
Last week’s award of a $14 million grant to Carnegie Mellon University to establish a National University Transportation Center on mobility is the latest in a series of transportation grants for the region. That grant comes on the heels of a $10.9 million grant in October to set up a “smart spine” to help get traffic into the Golden Triangle and in the midst of Uber’s continuing demonstration and testing of the nation’s first self-driving vehicles.
And the city is working with the state Department of Transportation to apply this month for designation as an Automation Proving Ground for self-driving vehicles. That doesn’t come with any money, but it would further cement the city as a leader in developing that technology.
Local and federal officials say the city’s year-long development of an application for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge provided the impetus for the city’s growing transportation reputation. The city didn’t win the grant — it was among seven finalists, with the grant eventually going to Columbus, Ohio — but the process joined regional elements that didn’t necessarily work together in the past, said Alex Pazuchanics, policy coordinator for Mayor Bill Peduto.
“I think the process of applying for the Smart City Challenge identified a lot of resources that were already here,” said Mr. Pazuchanics, calling the application “the matchstick” that sparked a joint effort. “It put them together in a much stronger way.”
Sophie Shulman, acting assistant secretary for research and technology at DOT, said federal officials took notice of Pittsburgh and several other finalists. That’s why other federal funding for specific projects such the smart spine has been awarded to several of those cities, she said.
“Pittsburgh was definitely an example of the standouts in the Smart City process,” Ms. Shulman said. “CMU is a huge asset for Pittsburgh and a really outstanding partner. Those relationships really built a strong application.”
In a unique step, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx visited each of the seven finalists for a tour and group meeting with all of the agencies and organizations that would have been involved if the city received the grant. Pittsburgh had a strong showing at that meeting, said Jon Romano, DOT’s director of strategic communications.
“I think the mayor has a really strong vision of what he wants for the city and the city benefits from that vision,” he said.
The latest University Transportation Center is a shift in direction for CMU and the federal program. The university is finishing a five-year center focused on traffic, which mostly deals with vehicles, but the center on mobility is broader and will involve developing technology to provide better movement of pedestrians, bicyclists, freight and other commodities in addition to motor vehicles, Ms. Shulman said.
“The specific emphasis is how we can move everything more efficiently,” said Raj Rajkumar, the George Westinghouse Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Robotics who will head the program. Mr. Rajkumar also is co-director of the university's General Motors Connected and Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Laboratory, where he does research on self-driving vehicles.
Among other things, the new program known as Mobility21 will work to develop road sensors, devices to allow vehicles to communicate road conditions with each other and other information that can be sent to a central data center and shared throughout the region. Researchers at Community College of Allegheny County, the University of Pennsylvania and Ohio State University with work with CMU.
Although the Smart City money would have gone directly to the city, Mr. Pazuchanics said, establishing the transportation center at CMU really won’t make much difference. That’s because the university’s emphasis is on applied research, which means rolling out improvements to the community.
“We’re really excited about the center,” he said. “It’s nice to see the Smart city process has really brought groups together and is building a cluster industry around transportation issues.”
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