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Southwestern Pennsylvania named a finalist for up to $100M in Build Back Better money

In this Dec. 18, 2018 file photo, one of the test vehicles from Argo AI, Ford's autonomous vehicle unit, navigates through the strip district near the company offices in Pittsburgh.
Keith Srakocic
Business and civic leaders in southwestern Pennsylvania say federal funds would help to turn the region's history of autonomous technology innovation into broader economic prosperity.

Southwestern Pennsylvania could get up to $100 million in federal funds to boost its autonomous technology sector. The area was named Monday as one of 60 finalists in the U.S. Commerce Department’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge.

Between 20 and 30 contest winners will each receive between $25 million and $100 million from the American Rescue Plan, the coronavirus relief package President Joe Biden signed in March. The money will fund programs to boost regional economies through the growth of specific sectors.

Southwestern Pennsylvania’s plan would support the wider adoption of artificial intelligence at existing businesses with fewer than 500 employees while also facilitating worker training.

“Robotics and autonomous technologies and artificial intelligence are going to transform our country and our economy the way the computer transformed the last one,” said Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

“If we can find a way to take those technologies and transform our existing companies and have folks living in this region benefiting from the jobs that will come out of that, it's really a way to position us for the future,” she said.

Pashman helped to develop the region’s proposal as part of the Southwestern Pennsylvania New Economy Coalition.

She noted that the region is already a hub for innovation in autonomous technology, thanks largely to decades of research at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. A study released in September estimated that the autonomous mobility sector will grow to more than $1 trillion in the next five years.

And with the Build Back Better money, the coalition predicted in its proposal, the region could add or retain 12,000 jobs and generate $335 million in direct regional output.

The coalition included local officials, labor unions, and other community stakeholders representing 11 counties, according to the proposal.

“Given the inclusive nature of this conversation, we're really able to collectively drive and make sure that each county and each company can adopt and use the technology in a way that makes sense,” Pashman said.

Finalists in the Build Back Better challenge each received $500,000 to develop their proposals further. They will submit their final applications by March 15.

The Pennsylvania Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship will also proceed to the final round of the competition. It’s proposed to develop the outdoor recreation industry in 13 rural counties in the northern part of the state.

Nearly 530 groups across the country applied for the money, according to the Department of Commerce. Finalists’ projects span 45 states and Puerto Rico, the department said.

It noted that it’s set aside $100 million specifically for “coal communities” that have struggled with population loss given the energy sector’s shift away from coal. Twelve coal communities are among the finalists, commerce officials said.

Southwestern Pennsylvania was once home to a thriving coal industry, Pashman noted.

“In my mind, we're going to win [the Build Back Better money]. This is a moment that could really transform Pittsburgh,” she said. “But that being said … if this funding doesn't come through, then we'll have to figure out some other ways to achieve what we believe are important goals to position our new economy for the future.”