Smart Cities

Tucked away in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill is $500 million for smart-city projects

The money will be distributed over five years, and could fund everything from connectivity to autonomous driving projects.
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· 4 min read

Infrastructure Week has finally arrived. On Monday, President Biden signed into law the long-anticipated $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which made it through Congress after extensive negotiations.

The bill includes $550 billion in new spending on a host of projects in public transit, broadband, highways, roads, and bridges.

It also establishes and allocates over $500 million to the Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) grant program. For the next five years, the bill will help cities pay for smart-city projects ranging from building out autonomous and connected vehicles infrastructure, smart traffic sensors, smart grids, and commerce delivery and logistics.

“There has been a lot of talk about doing things, but cities are not well-funded. They don’t have a lot of money to spare. This is going to be huge,” Andres Carvallo, CEO and cofounder of smart-grids and smart-cities consulting firm CMG Consulting, told Emerging Tech Brew. “The question will become how are the cities going to be divided. How much money is going to go to Nebraska, Oklahoma, or Texas? How much money is going to go to the big cities versus the little cities? That’s where the devil is going to be in the details.”

While this program is new, it’s not the first time the US government will try to encourage smart-city projects.

In 2015, the Department of Transportation (DOT) administered a one-off Smart City challenge. The challenge chose seven cities (Austin, Texas, Columbus, Ohio, Denver, Colorado, Kansas City, Missouri, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Portland, Oregon ,and San Francisco, California) as finalists before Columbus, Ohio, won the grand prize of $50 million. Most of the money ($40 million) came from the DOT, and $10 million came from the Vulcan Foundation, a climate-focused nonprofit.

Columbus won thanks to a proposal that envisioned the city connecting its infrastructure with mobile apps that gave better traffic schedules, allowed scheduling of medical appointments, and offered payment services and free public wi-fi. Since then, it’s achieved only some of those goals, like providing public transit apps for people with cognitive disabilities. But many goals have been derailed by bureaucracy, technical problems, and, of course, the pandemic. (The city modified an autonomous shuttle from the project into a food-bank delivery shuttle during the pandemic.)

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The infrastructure bill sketches out some details on how the new money can be spent. Every year the Transportation Secretary will have $100 million at their disposal, 40% of which can go to large communities, while midsize and rural communities get 30% respectively.

Those funds can be used on a litany of smart-city projects, like installing connected street lights or EV charging ports, but there are some restrictions. For instance, cities can’t use any of the funds in the grant program for traffic or parking enforcement activities or license-plate readers. But some privacy advocates, like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, expressed concern in August that expanding smart-city projects could lead to greater surveillance without more explicit privacy protections.

The bill also divvies up the money between government agencies including the DOT, Department of Energy, and Department of the Interior, among others. The DOT didn’t return a request for comment on fund allocation.

The grant program has a lot of potential to help cities big and small to achieve their smart-city goals, but success may be dependent on their own initiative, Nick Maynard, CEO of US Ignite, a nonprofit helping underserved communities develop smart-city initiatives, told Emerging Tech Brew.

“I don’t want to oversell it and say that it’s a panacea or it’s a silver bullet, but at the same time, if a city has a vision for how they can leverage the technology, and they make that commitment over the months and years necessary to really implement it, it can be an important ingredient for driving economic development in that community,” Maynard said.

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