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An artist’s conception visualizes how “connected vehicles” could communicate. (Credit: USDOT)

The U.S. Department of Transportation and billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. are offering $50 million to midsize cities, including Seattle, in a “Smart City” competition to promote next-generation transportation systems.

“Our national vision for transportation is still very much constrained by 20th-century thinking about technology,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters today during a teleconference to announce the contest. “We are imagining connected and autonomous vehicles that practically eliminate crashes. And we are imagining this technology interacting with wired infrastructure to eliminate traffic jams as well.”

Foxx said the federal government would be unveiling new guidelines for autonomous vehicles sometime in the next few weeks, and requirements for vehicle-to-vehicle communications in the next year. But he also said DOT wants cities to come up with their own visions for transportation systems that are safer, more efficient and more environmentally friendly.

Vulcan had a similar goal in mind, said Barbara Bennett, the company’s president and chief operating officer. She noted that transportation accounts for more than a quarter of the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Improved urban transit systems could go a long way toward reducing those emissions and addressing concerns about climate change, she said.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do something with a city?'” she told reporters.

Vulcan soon found out that DOT was working on a similar initiative – and the two organizations joined forces in a public-private partnership. “We were quickly coming to the same conclusion independent that this type of competition would be worthwhile, and it’s a great partnership,” Foxx said.

The Smart City Challenge will offer $40 million in DOT funding and $10 million from Vulcan. The competition is open to U.S. cities with a 2010 census population between 200,000 and 850,000. In Washington state, Seattle and Spokane qualify.

Cities have until February to submit their proposals for transit innovations. DOT’s experts will select five proposals as finalists. Each of the finalists will receive $100,000 in federal funding for further development, and the winner would be announced by next June. The guidelines are detailed in a 43-page notice of funding opportunity issued today.

The proposals will be judged by how well they mesh with the elements of DOT’s Smart City vision, including urban automation, connected vehicles and sensor-based infrastructure. Other factors could touch on user-focused mobility and shared-transportation services, such as Uber, Lyft and Car2Go.

During today’s teleconference, Foxx declined to rule out any proposals – including transportation schemes that already have been suggested but lack funding.

Fifty million dollars may not sound like much in comparison to the $305 billion in transportation funding that’s due to be made available over the next five years under the terms of a measure that became law last week. But speaking as the former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., Foxx said he expected the program to make a big difference.

“I can tell you that $40 million is enough to get folks’ attention,” he said. There’s no requirement for the competitors to commit additional up-front funding for their projects, but Foxx said he expected that “other partners would come to the table in these communities and around the country.”

“That kind of drawing power is what I think this competition is really all about,” he said.

Update for 4:10 p.m. PT: The Smart City Challenge could be an “interesting opportunity for the City of Seattle,” said Rick Sheridan, communications director for the Seattle Department of Transportation.

“The challenge is in line with our constant focus on embracing technology to address issues like congestion, safety and pollution,” Sheridan told GeekWire.

He said the program is likely to create technological tools that Seattle and other cities can use to tackle those issues, no matter who wins. In the weeks ahead, the details of the competition will be reviewed “to make sure Seattle is a good fit for the program,” Sheridan said.

A list released last week by Walk Score, a Redfin company, ranks Seattle as the 10th-best big U.S. city for public transit. New York won the top “Transit Score” (84.1), based on the relative usefulness of transit routes near a given location. For what it’s worth, Seattle’s score is 57. Others on the list of top 10 transit cities with populations above 300,000 include San Francisco, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, Miami, Baltimore and Minneapolis (in ranked order from second to ninth).

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