Ohio’s Winning Week (Finally)

But really just about Columbus’ $150 million victory.

Matthew Adair
Jun 22, 2016 · 4 min read

Yes, the Cleveland Cavaliers pulled of an historic sports win, giving long-embattled fans a chance to enjoy an unknown feeling: victory.

Perhaps a less colorful, yet more profound, win for the Buckeye state was revealed yesterday. Columbus, Ohio’s capital and largest city, beat out six other cities for $40 million in federal grants to support innovative transportation solutions for the growing region. The competition, dubbed the SmartCities challenge, was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation and supported by additional funding from Vulcan, a firm led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

The decision, which likely came as a surprise to many who feel Columbus is insignificant enough to warrant the suffix “OH,” was revealed by Columbus Business First and later confirmed by U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown. Officials at City Hall in Columbus may have also been surprised, as the city refused to issue any statements on the day of the announcement.

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U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown shows support for his hometown team’s NBA victory. (Facebook)

What cities did Columbus beat out for this competition? Quite a few major players: Denver, San Francisco, Kansas City, Austin, Portland, and Pittsburgh. (Check out the video that helped Columbus score the grant.)

Let’s take a look at the how the competition shook out.

Given San Francisco’s abundance of transit options—despite funding woes—the grant wasn’t likely to head to the Bay Area. The USDOT was insistent upon four core goals for the proposals: (1) Improve safety, (2) Enhance mobility, (3) Enhance ladders of opportunity, and (4) Address climate change. Considering the multi-modal options available to the San Fransisco region, the federal dollars would likely have a stronger impact in another city with less mobility.

The call for round two of applications also stressed that USDOT was seeking “bold and innovative ideas for proposed demonstrations to effectively test, evaluate, and demonstrate the significant benefits of smart city concepts.” If you’re looking to test a new concept, trying to tie that in with a complicated layering of existing transport options could be tough. Portland, Austin, Denver, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh all offer rail options for their residents. Whether it’s a streetcar or an Amtrak line, they’ve already got it.

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Aerial image of the Linden neighborhood in Columbus, the area that city officials pledge will be better connected to employment opportunities after implementation of the proposal’s strategies.

What may have been our surprising advantage? No streetcar, no Amtrak, and no light rail to fuss with here in Columbus. In our city, the USDOT may have seen a blank slate.

What else pushed Columbus over the edge? Some people—including the competitors—have pointed to the $90 million in funds that were pledged by the private sector to support the effort.

BikePortland.org wrote: “It’s hard to say how much of this is just clever repackaging of money that would have been spent anyway, but it’s a very impressive sum. Portland’s application drew lots of letters of support but no local financial commitments like that.”

How much did other cities pony up in matching funds? According to Pittsburgh’s Business First, the governor of Pennsylvania pledged $11 million if the city won the grant. Austin received a bit more support: an additional $50 million of in-kind services from local and national private sector companies and partners. San Fransisco bested Columbus’ application considerably, boasting a $150 million contribution from local partners. Lacking more detail, Denver’s application touts a “total value of [over] $84 million.”

The pledge by Columbus businesses to offer $90 million, bringing the total amount to $150 million, to support this proposal is no surprise. In a recent exposé on the shifting power balance in the growing city, the relationship between government and business was described as “clean, collaborative, efficient.” Perhaps a Midwestern trait, the region has a history of playing nice. City officials regularly offer tax breaks to corporations and developers, even in the most thriving neighborhoods. Though with an unemployment rate of 3.9% (lowest in the Midwest, 14th in the nation), the city must be doing something right.

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The coming weeks and months will show how the details of Columbus’ proposal will be implemented. When considering the magnitude of Ohio’s two major victories this week, one may wonder whether the elation of loyal Cleveland fans outweighs the support for Columbus’ multi-million dollar transit infusion. The answer is—undoubtedly—“yes.”

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