Bellevue accelerates self-driving transit plans as Amazon moves major team from Seattle

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A graphic from the CommutePool grant application describes the proposed system. (City of Bellevue)

For more than a year, transportation wonks and city officials have been working to turn Bellevue, Wash., into a smart mobility hub. But news that Amazon plans to relocate a major team from its Seattle headquarters to the nearby city is adding a new level of urgency to that goal.

The plan is to launch CommutePool, a network of self-driving, electric vehicles serving commuters in Bellevue and Kirkland, Wash. Advocates for CommutePool are accelerating their Bellevue plans in the wake of Amazon’s announcement, according to Bruce Agnew, director of ACES, the organization behind the project.

Agnew says the CommutePool partners are “recalibrating our private fundraising goals in light of accelerated commercial development of downtown Bellevue.”

The City of Bellevue is seeking private funding to test autonomous vehicles along fixed routes downtown at low speeds. They’ve partnered with ACES (Automated, Connected, Electric, Shared), the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, and AAA Washington on the project. Together they are interviewing three transportation firms for the tests: Keolis, Transdev, and First Transit.

ACES is co-chaired by Madrona Venture Group Managing Director Tom Alberg, and INRIX CEO Bryan Mistele. The organization launched in 2017 to seek grant funding and lay the groundwork for self-driving transit in Bellevue.

Madrona Managing Director Tom Alberg, who was one of Amazon’s first investors, speaks with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at a Madrona event in 2015. (Madrona Photo)

“We believe that we should receive the federal grant but, if not, we are encouraged that several of our major employers are interested in helping fund the launch of the program,” said Alberg, an early Amazon investor who is stepping down from his longtime position on the Amazon board later this year.

Because efforts to secure public grant funding have been sluggish, Bellevue is exploring a new model to get its transportation vision off the ground.

“We’re getting ready to do this CommutePool with or without a grant,” said Steve Marshall, who manages transportation technology partnerships for the City of Bellevue, back in February. “Particularly since Amazon’s made the announcements about having a lot more office space in Bellevue, we’re thinking that we ought to just go forward with this now and speed up the timeline.”

The CommutePool partners are canvassing businesses in the area to seek funding for the project. In the next two weeks, they plan to meet with senior executives at Amazon.

The launch date is dependent on fundraising. ACES hopes to launch tests during the final quarter of 2019 but the plans could be pushed out to early 2020.

In April, GeekWire learned that Amazon plans to relocate its entire Seattle-based worldwide operations team to Bellevue, Wash., adding thousands of employees to its new campus. The migration will begin this year and finish by 2023. The team will move into at least three Bellevue buildings: Summit III, a 17-story building Amazon leased in January, Expedia’s former headquarters building, and the 13-story Summit II building. Seattle employees may also move into Amazon’s 16-story Center 425 building.

The news has Bellevue transportation officials doubling down on their CommutePool plans in anticipation of the arrival of thousands of new Amazon workers. Tapping the expertise of the region’s tech industry is key to the project.

Amazon and Luum — a Seattle-based startup that provides commuting services — plan to develop an app to help travelers access the CommutePool system. The app will allow commuters to reserve parking at pick-up locations, reserve seats, and schedule pick-ups and drop-offs, according to the CommutePool grant application.

“If Amazon could start with this CommutePool service and then eventually expand it to be able to link to all kinds of public transit and bike-shares, other ride-shares, not only here but around the country, they’d be doing two things,” Marshall said. “They’d be helping their own employees in this area get to and from work but they’d also be setting up another business line.”

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