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All systems go for self-driving bus in downtown Youngstown

YOUNGSTOWN — More than five months after opening proposals for a self-driving bus as part of a major downtown improvement project, the city’s board of control today plans to approve a $682,097 contract for the 10-seat vehicle.

The city’s contract with Transdev Services Inc. of Lombard, Illinois, calls for the company to have a driver on the airport shuttle-sized bus — as required by state law — for the first six months after it is delivered in the early fall, said Charles Shasho, the city’s deputy director of public works. After that, its future is uncertain, Shasho said.

“We’ll see where we are after that,” he said.

The city had to include the autonomous bus as a provision of getting a $10.65 million federal grant, announced in December 2018, Shasho said.

The city will work out a memorandum of understanding with the Western Reserve Transit Authority for the bus that will go from WRTA’s downtown bus station at West Federal Street and Fifth Avenue to Eastern Gateway Community College, Shasho said. That’s a distance of about a half-mile.

“We have no interest in operating a transit system,” Shasho said. “We’ll cooperate with WRTA. If it’s not well received, we’ll go from there.”

If the city wants to pay Transdev to continue operating the bus after the six months expire, that could be done for an additional fee, Shasho said. The city also could turn over the bus to WRTA, he said.

“If not, we have an electric vehicle in the city’s fleet for some other purpose,” Shasho said. “We’ll see how it goes. It’s too early to speculate. Right now, the service is through the company we’re buying it from.”

The city received two proposals for the bus: one from Transdev and the other from Chang Industrial in Jacksonville Beach, Florida.

The proposal from Chang “didn’t meet the requirements of the federal highway provisions” and couldn’t be considered by the city, Shasho said.

Part of the issue with Chang was it didn’t meet federal Buy American provisions, Shasho said.

“We probably would have picked Trans anyway,” Shasho said.

As for taking more than five months to decide, Shasho said, “We had to research the topic. It’s a RFP (request for proposals) and there was a lot of latitude and what-ifs.”

That included choosing from different types of buses as well as a purchase / lease option.

The bus is part of a $27.65 million project to improve several downtown streets that began in July 2020 that received $10.85 million in federal funding through the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development grant.

The SMART2 (Strategic and Sustainable, Medical and Manufacturing, Academic and Arts, Residential and Recreation and Technology and Training) Network project caused several of the city’s main downtown streets to be closed for many months and adversely impacted numerous businesses.

A $7 million improvement to Fifth Avenue between West Federal Street and Eastbound Service Road tied up traffic for more than a year before it finished in July 2020.

NEW BUS SHELTERS

Also on the agenda for today’s board of control meeting is a proposal to pay $82,063 to MS Consultants Inc. to design a couple of bus shelters on Fifth Avenue by Youngstown State University.

The shelters are complicated because both need retaining walls, Shasho said.

Shasho said he expects the board today to approve the MS contract and to purchase the autonomous bus.

Other work as part of this project has been done to Federal, Front, Commerce and South Phelps streets and Rayen Avenue.

The work includes repaving, realigning curbs, reducing driving lanes, expanding sidewalks, new crosswalks and changes to parking.

There have been construction delays — some of them extensive — on every street involved with the project. The other issue is the time it takes to install decorative crosswalks, forcing the shutdown of downtown intersections.

All of the work in this project has to be finished by the end of this year, and all of the money spent by the end of 2025 as conditions of the grant.

The city initially included similar improvement work to Federal Street from Phelps to Champion streets in this project. But that had to be pulled from the job because several basements, including at the city-owned 20 Federal Place, were discovered in the right of way on sidewalks, Shasho said.

Work on that section of Federal Street should start this summer, Shasho said.

That work will take about three to four months to complete, forcing that section to be closed to vehicle traffic during that time, he said.

Have an interesting story? Contact David Skolnick by email at dskolnick@vindy.com. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @dskolnick.

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