DOT Funding Will Support San Francisco’s Autonomous Bus Program

In the near future, 8,000 new residents of Treasure Island, Calif., will travel around the island in buses that drive themselves, according to plans outlined by the city of San Francisco.

On Jan. 6, the U. S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced an award of $11 million to fund smart city projects in San Francisco. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), in tandem with the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), will disperse the money among six pilot programs to reduce traffic congestion and create a more efficient transit system.

Of the $11 million, $1 million will be devoted to a fleet of autonomous buses for Treasure Island, which is a manmade island in the San Francisco Bay that was built in the late 1930s as a spectacle for the World’s Fair. It is adjacent to a natural island called Yerba Buena, through which the San Francisco Bay Bridge runs.

The entire infrastructure of Treasure Island is undergoing renovation. Now, 2,000 people live on Treasure Island, but the city plans to build a housing development that will make the population boom, according to Eric Young, senior communications officer for SFCTA.

A private developer is building the 8,000 homes that will ultimately occupy Treasure Island. Young said that the developer is planning to make the houses sustainable, positioning them so they receive as much solar power from daylight as possible and furnishing them with wind turbines to take advantage of the area’s prevailing gusts.

“We’re transitioning Treasure Island to be a new neighborhood. We’re envisioning 8,000 homes, businesses, and offices in the next few years,” Young said. “The transportation authority has to develop transit plans for these islands.”

Treasure Island’s autonomous buses will accommodate 12 passengers each. Young said he does not know how expensive a ride will be or how often the buses will run. However, he said these vehicles will follow an intra-island transit schedule, following a circuit that stays within the confines of Treasure Island and Yerba Buena. The state of California does not yet have legislation that allows autonomous vehicles on public roads. The island buses will link passengers to San Francisco’s municipal buses, which run throughout the city.

Young stated that SFCTA will start receiving deliveries of autonomous buses in 2018. Until then, he and his team are learning from the experiments that the Contra Costa Transportation Authority is conducting at its autonomous vehicle test center in Concord, Calif. When the San Francisco transportation authorities acquire the buses, they will test them on the two islands.

“These will be good areas to test the technology because of the contained geographical area,” Young said. “Treasure Island is like a flat desk, but Yerba Buena has very hilly topography. It’s going to be a great testing environment.”

Another pilot program DOT’s money will fund is a connected, electronic toll system for the congestion pricing program. This tolling system will apply to people who drive from San Francisco to Treasure Island. According to Young, the purpose of the congestion pricing program is to encourage the use of public transportation and generate revenue to support Treasure Island transit projects, such as new ferries, more bus services, and a bike sharing system.

As of now, there is no tolling system in place at Treasure Island, although there is a toll on the Bay Bridge for westbound drivers who are leaving Oakland and going toward San Francisco. Young stated that $5 million of the DOT award money will go toward this toll system. Young’s team is still designing the tolling program and has not yet selected a vendor.

“The Bay Bridge is a heavily used way to get from San Francisco to Oakland,” Young said. “We need a way to handle the traffic.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the direction of the Bay Bridge toll.

Eleanor Lamb
About Eleanor Lamb
Eleanor Lamb is a Staff Reporter for MeriTalk covering Big Data, FITARA, Homeland Security, Education, Workforce Issues, and Civilian Agencies.
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