Illustration by Mitch Blunt

Stephen Ezell and Rob Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation—a think tank focusing on tech policy—have an idea that they believe would improve U.S. infrastructure: create a “Race to the Digital Top” to pilot intelligent transportation technology in six cities. Like its educational counterpart, the program would be a competitive grant run by the federal government. Ezell and Atkinson first proposed the idea in a working group at a symposium sponsored by the Milstein Commission on Infrastructure and Middle-Class Jobs. I recently spoke to Ezell, ITIF’s vice president of global innovation policy, about the idea. Our exchange has been edited and condensed.

—Sarah Smith

What are the problems this proposal is trying to tackle?

The goal is to bring more intelligence, safety, and efficiency to America’s transportation system. Whether that’s real-time traffic information that helps drivers plot a better route to their destination, whether it’s smart traffic signals that turn green when there’s nobody else around you to let you go on your way, traffic lights that are integrated with emergency vehicles so an ambulance can get straight through, or information about traffic flow so transportation systems managers can make better decisions on whether to build new roadways—the point is, it’s about leveraging tools that exist to bring intelligence and efficiency to transportation systems. It’s primarily to create a platform for the application of proven, existing technologies.

We have millions of traffic accidents each year on America’s roadways, and 33,000 traffic fatalities and an estimated $1 trillion cost on our economy through lost productivity, injury, and loss of life. The first reason we need to deploy these technologies is to prevent and mitigate accidents. The second reason is to mitigate congestion. Communities cannot build enough new roadways to keep up with transpor-tation volume.

How would the “Race to the Digital Top” work?

The idea is to establish six smart communities around the United States—two small, two midsize, and two large communities—and give them federal funding that would be matched on a two-to-one basis by the city governments and by businesses in their communities. These communities would then become models for deploying intelligent transportation technology and for bringing together businesses, universities, research institutions, and government agencies to implement these solutions. The goal would be to massively improve the infrastructure in the cities that receive these awards and then for these deployments to become a blueprint for other cities across the country to establish intelligent transportation systems. The thought is it could be designed as a competitive grant program managed by the Transportation Department, so you would open a bid process for multiple cities to put in place their blueprints for how they’d do this and have it be managed by the DOT in concert with other departments, such as the Departments of Commerce, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development.

How much money would each size city get?

The total prizes would be $150 million for the two small cities combined, $400 million for the two midsize cities combined, and $750 million for the two large cities combined with two-to-one federal-to-local match, so the total cost of the federal contribution will be less than $1 billion.

How do you define the term “smart community”?

Smart communities are ones that seamlessly integrate connected technologies into infrastructure and public services.

What would it take to make “Race to the Digital Top” happen?

Commitment. You’re seeing smart cities all around the world these days—Intel has invested more than $5 billion in Dublin, Ireland, for example. These intelligent transportation technologies are on the shelf. The best bids are going to be the communities that come forth with an integrated vision of how to deploy the technologies.

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