Charlotte hoping to win $40 million federal prize for being a ‘Smart City’

Charlotte is hoping to win a $40 million grant in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Smart City Challenge.”
Charlotte is hoping to win a $40 million grant in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Smart City Challenge.” rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte will learn this weekend whether it’s a finalist for the federal government’s “Smart City Challenge,” a frenzied two-month contest for cities to devise plans for how technology can reduce congestion.

The U.S. Department of Transportation will announce five finalists Saturday out of 77 cities that entered.

The prize is a $40 million grant.

The contest is unusual in that cities had little time to prepare. The DOT announced the contest in early December, and applications were due in early February. Charlotte City Council member Kenny Smith voted for the city to move forward with the project, but he was puzzled that the federal government would give away so much money for something created in two months.

The city’s application focuses on three parts of the city: University City; an area north of uptown the city is calling the NorthEnd Smart District; and the distribution warehouses around Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

The city hasn’t released its actual application, only a two-page summary. The city said it can’t discuss more about its proposal because it signed a confidentiality agreement with the DOT.

The city said it will attempt to solve a different problem in each of the three areas.

In the NorthEnd, the city said it hopes to solve what’s known as the “first and last mile problem,” to make it easier for people using public transportation.

The idea is to find a way to make the first and last part of a person’s trip faster, especially if they live far from a bus or train station. One possibility would be making it easier to use ride-share companies like Lyft.

At the airport, it also hopes to use technology to improve “signal prioritization” for freight and delivery vehicles. Charlotte Douglas is home to the Norfolk Southern intermodel yard, which handles hundreds of daily cargo transfers from rail to truck and vice versa.

In University City, the city also hopes to create a “single payment” method for a trip, even if a passenger uses different transportation modes, like a taxi and then a bus.

The city has partnered with companies such as Microsoft, Ford, GM, IBM, Uber, Lyft and Bosch for the project.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs