Michigan launching $8M mobility challenge for senior transit

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Gov. Rick Snyder announced an $8 million mobility initiative Wednesday, May 30, 2018, at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

Mackinac Island — Michigan is launching a $8 million grant program for ride-sharing companies, automakers, transit agencies and advocacy groups to develop new mobility options for seniors, handicapped residents and military veterans, Gov. Rick Snyder said Wednesday.  

The state is expected to issue a request for bids in coming weeks and will give the first round of winning bidders 60 days to launch “innovative” pilot programs.

Although it’s not clear what the bids might look like, Snyder described a hypothetical pilot program that would use driverless autonomous vehicles to bring senior citizens to a bus stop or train station and connect them with existing public transit options.

“Let’s think outside the box and let’s not wait for the rest of the world,” Snyder said, calling the grant program the largest of its kind in the country. “I’ll guarantee you not all of these are going to work great, but isn’t that the way we should be innovating? Let’s try things. Let’s see what can really work well.”

Officials from the Michigan Department of Transportation and Michigan Economic Development Corporation joined Snyder for the mobility announcement at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference, where Metro Detroit business groups are attempting to keep alive waning Regional Transit Authority funding plans.

Michigan lawmakers already approved funding for the mobility grant program. A supplemental spending bill Snyder signed in March included $175 million in extra roads and transportation funding, including $15 million the state could use on next-generation connected vehicle projects, hydrogen fueling stations and ride-sharing pilot projects.

Officials met with roughly 200 industry and advocacy leaders this month in Metro Detroit, including officials from Uber and Lyft, brainstorming mobility ideas in a session the state is using to develop the pending request for proposal, said Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle.

“It was made very, very clear: This isn’t about a science project. This isn’t about research. This is about deploying technology that exists today to help people’s lives today. Not even next year. Today,” Steudle said.

The state plans to award grants to projects of various sizes based on submissions and proposed service areas. They’ll be used to subsidize a portion of costs to plan, implement and monitor the pilot projects for three to six months. The state expects to fund projects in urban, rural and suburban communities in coordination with current services.

Asked about the potential risk of crashes involving autonomous vehicles, Snyder said the new technology must be deployed in “a safe, thoughtful way.”

“That’s a challenge anytime when you have new technologies, because you never want to see anyone hurt,” Snyder said. “Long term, though, that is one of the huge benefits of this technology: It should save many lives. We lose way too many lives on the roads today, and if you look at it, most of that is human error.”