Hopes ride on futuristic connected Detroit-Ann Arbor corrid…

Hopes ride on futuristic connected Detroit-Ann Arbor corrid…

Trevor Pawl, Michigan’s chief mobility officer, introduced the ambitious project Aug. 13 as one that “we believe will fundamentally change, transform regional transit in Michigan and the world.”

Transportation is laced into the fabric of the state’s history, anchored by the Motor City, he said. “So it only makes sense that together, the state, national, industry leaders all here today that Michigan do something that’s never been done … something that will shape the future of mobility globally … Today, we begin building the road of the future.”

In the simplest terms, this would be a public lane with upgraded infrastructure to support connected and self-driving vehicles. A vision for future transportation investment released by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments last year anticipated between 20 percent and 85 percent of passenger vehicle traffic would be autonomous by 2045.

But officials said last week they envision it as more. They have lofty aspirations, saying it would improve access to safe transportation, resilient roads and reliable public transit — all while encouraging economic development along the roadway.

Officials said that if realized, the corridor would tap communities for new jobs in mobility and encourage new businesses to spring up along the route.

“Having the ability to connect one of the best universities in the world with one of the best airports in the world with thriving suburbs and an energized urban core is every economic developer’s dream,” Khalil Rahal, assistant Wayne County executive, said at the announcement.

But it’s a long road to reality.

The first step is a two-year feasibility study on costs, engineering and traffic flow by Cavnue.

The Michigan Department of Transportation contracted with Cavnue but isn’t paying the company for its planning work or to build the actual infrastructure, if the two parties decide to go ahead with it. The private company will be looking to recoup its money through operations later on. It may also apply for federal funding.

Physical investments in the roadway could range from hardening the pavement — autonomous vehicles usually drive in the same spot, which wears down the road — to installing machine-readable road markings, highly reliable internet connectivity and separation barriers, said Michael Shapiro, vice president and project manager for Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners.

“While the total cost of implementation will be sizable, (Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners) expects that the cost per mile will be significantly lower than alternatives such as traditional light rail transit, while providing better safety, lower congestion, and greater capacity and speed than buses and other alternatives,” the state of Michigan said in a statement describing the corridor business model.

Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners comes to the project out of a competitive state bidding process. The independent company is a spin-off and “portfolio company” of Google parent Alphabet Inc.’s urban innovation startup, Sidewalk Labs LLC. It is led by Brian Barlow and Jonathan Winer, two veterans of Sidewalk Labs, which in 2018 planned a pioneering smart-city development in Toronto. The company canceled the 12-acre plan this May, citing in a blog post the pandemic’s toll on the economy.

Asked about any potential economic impact on the Michigan project, Shapiro said he sees Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners’ ability to provide capital for road infrastructure as making it “a good partner to the public sector, as there are concerns about the recession and the budget.”

Transportation Services Jonathan Cartu

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