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Traffic21 anniversary event met with protest as Secretary of Transportation pledges 8.4 million toward its research

On Friday, Carnegie Mellon celebrated the tenth anniversary of Traffic21, a university sponsored research institute dedicated to creating technology improving transportation infrastructure, traffic issues, and accessibility in Allegheny County and beyond.

To kick off the two-day symposium, an invitation-only lunch event featured remarks from County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Congressman Mike Doyle, Mayor Bill Peduto, and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, the event’s keynote speaker.

Traffic21 has worked on multiple initiatives in the Allegheny County region, such as the development of an app that provides real-time information about Port Authority buses, an app for the airport, and one for landslide detection in Western Pennsylvania. The research institute has spun off three companies, including RapidFlow Technologies.

All the speakers lauded Carnegie Mellon for the initiative. In his remarks, Congressman Doyle said that “the work that has been done here at CMU and Traffic21 has benefited our local residents, helped grow our economy, and kept our region globally competitive,” which he attributes to the partnership between “government, academia, and the private sector.” Carnegie Mellon President Farnam Jahanian also noted that Traffic21 has helped bring hundreds of technology jobs to the area, and millions of dollars in private investment.

Rick Stafford, the founder of Traffic21 and Metro21, discussed the future of Traffic21 with David Roger, the president of Hillman Family Foundation, and Al Biehler, the executive director of the University Transportation Center.

In this panel, they focused on the issues of urban design, including transportation access and barriers for low income citizens, the future of autonomous vehicles, and smart city technology to increase equity. In addition, they talked about Traffic21 being at the forefront of determining the direction of technology policy.

Secretary Chao’s remarks focused on increasing mobility for citizens with disabilities and stressed the potential of autonomous vehicles, including assisted driving features and the use of drones. She also announced an $8.4 million grant to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon to continue research into transportation technologies.

Secretary Chao’s invitation drew protests from people concerned with her ethics and allegations of corruption. Earlier in June, Politico reported that Secretary Chao had created a special liaison to facilitate grants for at least $78 million worth of projects to the state of Kentucky, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, her husband, is up for re-election. 25 percent of her meetings from January 2017 to March 2018 were with representatives from Kentucky, whose citizens, Politico notes, make up just 1.3 percent of the U.S. population.

Zachary Clein, a second-year dramatic writing graduate student, organized the protest. He said “Secretary Chao is the epitome of a corrupt politician. She is not here to promote technology and innovation for the good of the whole public, but more for corporate interest.”

Clein’s co-organizer, Joseph Heffner, a former graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, reiterated his sentiments and added “through the speakers [Carnegie Mellon] allows on campus, they are making a statement that the door is open to corporate interests.”

A media representative of the university gave a statement saying, “Carnegie Mellon University values the freedoms of speech, thought, expression and assembly as part of our core educational and intellectual mission. The university supports both the rights of the students who wish to protest and those who plan to attend Secretary Chao’s talk on the importance of innovating mobility during the Traffic21 Institute 10th Anniversary Symposium. We have worked with event organizers to allow for freedom of expression, engagement and exchange of ideas.”

When asked about the protests after his Thursday town hall, Jahanian said that departments and student organizations should have the ability to invite speakers to campus, and that “we have a policy of respect for essentially freedom of speech. As long as it’s not inciting violence, we will accommodate essentially people coming to express their opinions.”

He also reinforced the commitment to protecting the speech of the protesters, saying the university would “take their concerns into consideration and hopefully be able to explain also our position in terms of how we run the university and how we want to support their intellectual freedom as well as their freedom of speech.”