Michigan Mobility Challenge Designed to Address Transportation Gaps

Each year, at the end of May, Michigan’s government, industry, and nonprofit leaders get together on Mackinac Island for a few days to discuss the day’s most pressing political issues. It’s a popular place to announce new policies and programs.

This year, Gov. Rick Snyder used the Mackinac gathering to unveil the Michigan Mobility Challenge, a new $8 million grant initiative designed to address transportation gaps for seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities.

Trevor Pawl, who heads up the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s PlanetM program, says mobility was one of the themes this year on Mackinac as state leaders continue to get a better understanding of the promise and pitfalls associated with developing self-driving technologies. Because of its ties to the automotive industry, Michigan is one of the national centers of mobility research and development.

“What’s cool is that now, the movement to activate mobility technology is crossing party lines,” Pawl explains. “At the end of the day, the Mobility Challenge will launch a series of pilots in a way that can impact and inform the industry.”

The Mobility Challenge invites startups, technologists, transportation networks, advocacy groups, and service providers to formulate public-private partnerships to design and implement pilot projects that offer solutions to transportation gaps caused by geography, demographic changes, and access to transit, Pawl says.

“We’re not just looking at Southeast Michigan—the goal is also to help rural areas like the Upper Peninsula that don’t have as many service providers,” he adds. “Hopefully, there are solutions out there to help them live their best lives.”

Mobility Challenge grants will be awarded to fund demonstration projects based on pilot submissions and proposed service areas. The grants are meant to subsidize a portion of the cost of planning and conducting these demonstration projects for a period of three to six months; the remaining costs could be covered by investment funds, fares, or other contributions, Pawl says.

Before the challenge was announced, Pawl says a group of tech companies, advocacy and transit groups, and automotive engineers met for a one-day planning workshop deep inside a hotel at the Detroit airport.

“These were tough, heavy conversations on opportunities and challenges where transit design falls short,” he says. “It felt like we did something special. You don’t see many government projects where industry and advocacy groups help design them.”

Pawl says the state released a request for challenge proposals on Monday, and will give applicants until July 16 to respond. Pilot projects will be selected for their ability to be implemented “in the near term” by a team put together by the Michigan Department of Transportation. Projects that require more vetting will be put on a track to launch later in 2019.

Once the pilot projects are selected, project organizers will have 45 days to come up with a plan. Demonstration pilots are expected to launch during the final three months of the year, Pawl says, and will be evaluated by state and local authorities for their effectiveness. Follow-on funding for successful pilots is something the state is “keeping an open mind on,” he says.

“What we saw [on Mackinac Island] is that people are slowly realizing it’s hard to have one-size-fits-all plans,” he continues. “We need to build incrementally. If we can start to build cases for success, that will increase momentum. We believe the Mobility Challenge can help, and can be an out-of-state talent attraction tool.”

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