San Francisco lost a “Smart City” challenge for a $50 million federal grant to transform The City’s streets into an experimental hotbed of transit innovation, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.
The U.S. Department of Transportation held a contest among cities nationwide for the funding, and San Francisco was one of seven finalists pitching tech-oriented solutions to create transportation systems of the future.
Now it appears San Francisco has been eliminated from the contest, officials who worked on the project confirmed to the Examiner on Tuesday.
The project lead was Tim Papandreou, head of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Office of Innovation.
When asked by text message if the transportation department told San Francisco why it was not selected as a winner of the challenge, Papandreou replied, “Nope.”
When asked if the project would move forward in light of the federal loss, Papandreou wrote, “We’re reassessing.”
UC Berkeley also pledged many resources to the project, including researchers from various disciplines to analyze results of the new transit innovations.
Among those researchers was Susan Shaheen, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center and a leading expert on Uber and Lyft, who confirmed San Francisco was out of the race for the money.
“We gave it our very best,” Shaheen said.
The Columbus Dispatch reported Tuesday morning that Columbus, Ohio won the Smart City Challenge, and wrote, “Soon, driver-less vehicles will roam parts of Columbus.”
The plan pitched a dramatic revision of San Francisco’s streets: semi-autonomous Muni buses connected by wireless technology, shared bikes across The City, driverless Uber and Lyft vehicles, and shuttles to connect less dense neighborhoods to core transit lines.
Shaheen said the department of transportation “did not tell us why” San Francisco was not chosen, but “we had a feeling that it wasn’t going our way based on some questions in the orals.”
Mayor Ed Lee traveled to Washington D.C. to pitch San Francisco for the Smart City challenge earlier this month. While there, he announced that many local corporations pledged as much as $150 million in private contributions toward the Smart City project for San Francisco should it win.
SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said that funding was promised as a matching fund if San Francisco won the Smart City grant.
“It’s up to the individual companies on whether or not they’ll partner with us going forward,” he said, and SFMTA will meet with those companies to discuss “next steps.”
He said SFMTA broke their Smart City proposal down into 16 distinct pilot programs “deliberately,” making it easier to implement step by step “if we didn’t win.”
“Of course, we’ll need funding to do that,” he said.
In May, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx visited San Francisco to hear a pitch from The City for the grant, and was met by a roundtable 20-people deep of local technology bigwigs from Google, Lyft, Uber, and more.
“Our vision is really really bold,” Papandreou told Foxx at the time. “We want to launch the first shared, electric, connected and automated transportation system.”
At that meeting, the Examiner asked Mayor Ed Lee whether San Francisco would implement the project even if The City lost the contest.
“We actually should be doing this outside of the grant,” Lee said. “The grant seemed to instigate something exciting.”