Potential UT, City partnership to research ways to improve transportation issues, community concerns

Forrest Milburn

Austin will find out in the coming weeks if it was accepted into a group of 20 cities in the MetroLab network, in which cities and local universities are partnering to research opportunities for improvement in infrastructure, City services, democratic governance, public policy and management.

MetroLab Network started as part of an initiative by the Obama administration to provide $160 million in federal research funds and grants to cities and local governments, in order to help them tackle major policy areas and lead them on the right path to becoming “smart cities.”

“It’s a network of cities and universities that are focused on creating partnerships in which the city government can create a sort of laboratory-type setting in which university folks can test technology as policy approaches,” said Ben Levine, MetroLab Network interim director.

The City Council approved an ordinance directing the City to apply for the network partnership, with an acceptance decision expected in the coming weeks, MetroLab officials said.

“We have a lot of smart transportation efforts going on with the City of Austin, and so the application was very heavy on those efforts,” Jen Duthie, a research engineer with the Center for Transportation Research at UT, said.

On top of transportation needs, areas of policy, energy and possibly housing affordability — major issues the City Council has been concerned with — will be addressed through the MetroLab partnership, Duthie said.

If selected, Austin and UT would become the third Texas partnership, after partnerships in Dallas and Houston, to be among the 20 founding network partnerships. 

“Austin is clearly a leader in the state,” Levine said. “We are excited that they applied because we think there’s a lot other cities can learn from Austin, and I’m sure there’s projects Austin will be interested in learning about that are in our network.”

Some ways the founding 20 cities and universities have tackled transportation since last year include the implementation of a smart traffic-signalization project in the city of Pittsburgh and the use of electric cars to reduce congestion, Levine said.

On March 12, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it had selected Austin among its seven finalists in the Smart City Challenge, a separate part of the Obama initiative, in which the winning city will receive $40 million in grant funds to help it become one of the first cities in the country to “fully integrate“ technology in solving transportation network problems.

The winning city will be announced in June, according to the department website.

Austin’s MetroLabs network application is not affiliated with the city’s status as a finalist for the Smart City Challenge challenge, Duthie said.

“It’s not directly related, but everything’s connected,” Duthie, who was the primary University contact during the MetroLabs application process, said. “It’s just something else that’s strengthening that University-City collaboration.”

When applying for the Smart Cities Challenge, Mayor Steve Adler wrote in the cover letter that the city is in need of the ability to use technology and innovation in solving its transportation issues — issues that both the Smart Challenge and the City’s potential MetroLabs membership could help address.

“Austin is a magnet for venture investment in research, tech, advanced manufacturing and the creative class,” Adler said in the letter. “Yet a huge swath of our community is struggling to pay for housing and transportation — and that’s unacceptable.”