Politics & Government

Is Kansas City ready for more gunshot sensors, driverless cars, free Wi-Fi?

Kansas City's Smart City Challenge Grant video submission

Kansas City is one of seven finalists from 78 applications from across the country for a coveted $40 million federal transportation grant. Mayors from Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Denver; Pittsburgh; Portland, Ore.; and San Francisco also made p
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Kansas City is one of seven finalists from 78 applications from across the country for a coveted $40 million federal transportation grant. Mayors from Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Denver; Pittsburgh; Portland, Ore.; and San Francisco also made p

Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Sly James’ pitch for why his city deserved tens of millions of dollars in federal transportation funds was simple: “We’ve been there, done that.”

In a presentation before Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, James touted the city’s success with creating a “smart” corridor along the new downtown streetcar route with interactive kiosks, free Wi-Fi and other digital services.

“So we know what we’re doing; it’s not a gamble,” said James, sporting a pink and turquoise bow tie. “Selecting us would be a big win for our team, it would be a big win for your team, but it would be a catalytic win for the people of Kansas City.”

Kansas City is one of seven finalists from 78 applications from across the country for a coveted $40-million federal transportation grant. Mayors from Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Denver; Pittsburgh; Portland, Ore.; and San Francisco also made presentations to Foxx in Washington on Thursday.

Selecting us would be a big win for our team, it would be a big win for your team –but it would be a catalytic win for the people of Kansas City.

Mayor Sly James

The U.S. Department of Transportation will award the prize later this month to help the winner become the country’s first “Smart City” to fully integrate technologies such as self-driving cars, digital services and smart sensors into its transportation network.

A private company, Vulcan Inc., will award an additional $10 million to the winning city to support electric vehicle deployment and other strategies to reduce carbon emissions.

Addressing Foxx directly, James said Kansas City recognized that one of the secretary’s goals in the Smart Cities competition was to create “ladders of opportunity” for residents who had previously been shut out.

That’s why Kansas City’s application includes the expansion of public Wi-Fi along a rapid bus route on Prospect Avenue, he said. New gunshot detection technologies connected to police cars, smart lighting, video sensor technology would improve security in the area, he said.

“Now, we recognize that in the Prospect corridor of Kansas City on the east side, opportunity was sparse,” James said. “It’s the epicenter of sparse. I grew up there in the epicenter of sparse, where people are low income, undereducated, die quicker than they should for one reason or another, whether it's violence or poor healthcare, but they are shut out of opportunities. So we're focusing a lot of our efforts in that Prospect corridor.”

Other highlights from Kansas City’s proposal included a driverless shuttle from the airport synced with real-time flight schedules, bus-stop sensors that can adjust bus schedules based on how many people are waiting at a stop, and sensors on “smart” bike share stands that can track the number of bikes available in a given location to ensure they got restocked promptly.

“Every approach that we are taking is for one, single purpose, and that is to enhance the lives of the people who live in our city,” James said. “This isn’t about technology. It’s not about streets; it’s about people. And everything that we’ve done, and everything that we've targeted will have an impact on the lives of people in our community.”

Kansas City’s application focuses on transforming the city as a whole, not just the transportation element, said Bob Bennett, Kansas City’s chief innovation officer.

“I’m confident we’ve got a compelling proposal,” he said.

Bennett said Kansas City should have an edge because of its track record over the past five years of using federal and local dollars to complement each other

He cited projects the city recently completed, from the $100-million downtown streetcar route to “Connecting for Good” in the northeastern part of the city, where a combination of federal funds and private efforts focused on connecting low-income homes and closing the digital divide.

Bennett watched the competing presentations closely. Win or lose, he hopes to leverage the experience in Washington to create a network of cities that are committed to improving the cityscape with smart technology.

“There will be good that comes out of this,” he said. “And I think we’re going win.”

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise

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