Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Drawing on his time as New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg proposes handing power and money to urban leaders as part of his Democratic presidential bid.
Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire media mogul and former New York City mayor who is running for U.S. president, released his campaign plan for infrastructure on Wednesday, which proposes to invest more than a trillion dollars in roads, railways, pipes, and telecommunication lines.
“The plan I’m releasing today will transform the way we build in America, allowing projects to be built faster, and with more accountability for completing them on-time,” he said at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Wednesday.
He continued: “President Trump has done nothing on infrastructure, except break promises.”
The plan contains echoes of Bloomberg’s 2002 to 2013 tenure as New York City mayor, including an emphasis on data and the value of city leadership. Several marquee elements focus on the meat-and-potatoes of all federal infrastructure promises: roads, highways, and bridges. He proposes fixing 240,000 miles of roads and 16,000 bridges in disrepair by 2025, spending $850 billion over 10 years on capital projects, and setting up a $1 billion annual “pothole” fund for emergency repairs. He also calls for closing gaps in broadband access, deploying electric-vehicle charging infrastructure on highways across the country.
(Disclosure: CityLab was recently acquired by Bloomberg LP. Michael Bloomberg is the company's founder and majority owner.)
But there are also some less-conventional aspects to Bloomberg’s infrastructure agenda. As president, his administration would establish a set of goals for what the nation’s infrastructure ought to achieve, including benchmarks for job creation, social equity, and accessibility. A national map of all transportation routes would highlight missing links in road, rail, transit, air, and freight networks, and data from both public and private sectors would help drive investment decisions and shape policy.
This would be something of a national version of Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, a 2007 strategic plan that identified challenges and trends related to New York City’s mid-aughts growth and established infrastructure goals accordingly.
According to Janette Sadik-Khan, the Bloomberg campaign’s lead transportation adviser and his former New York City transportation commissioner, this dimension distinguishes Bloomberg’s thinking from other Democratic candidates, some of whom have proposed higher-dollar infrastructure plans. “If money alone could solve our problems, we wouldn’t be in the crisis we’re in,” she said “Setting goals will be a game-changer.”
Earlier this month, Pete Buttigieg released his own $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan; Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar also have proposals in that price ballpark. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have wrapped their respective $16 and $10 trillion climate plans into broad-based infrastructure strategies. All six have endorsed the Green New Deal, though Bloomberg has also said that this congressional package of climate programs “stands no chance” of passing the Republican Senate.
Drawing further on his experience running New York and years of philanthropy and consulting in cities around the world, Bloomberg would vest greater power with local leaders to guide the country’s infrastructure future. The plan would make states distribute 100 percent of federal funding intended for cities directly to cities, for example, rather than withholding or drawing upon those resources for alternative purposes. “I will give mayors and other local leaders the authority and resources to take on the most important projects—and complete them, on-time and on-budget,” Bloomberg said.
And Bloomberg’s plan seeks to replicate aspects of New York City’s transportation networks across the country. It calls to triple federal funding for both public transit, including a $12 billion program to improve service and attract new users, and for “alternative transportation projects,” such as bike lanes. A set of national “complete streets” design principles would seek to reduce traffic fatalities through Vision Zero-inspired ideas. (Among Sadik-Khan’s signature accomplishments under Bloomberg’s city administration was a dramatic expansion of the city’s cycling network; New York is also the only major city to have significantly reduced pedestrian fatalities in recent years.)
Bloomberg also proposes to invest $100 billion over 10 years to repair drinking water systems for 100 cities with the greatest needs—places such as Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, which are dealing with ongoing lead contamination crises. He advocates setting up a $100 billion “Climate Resilience Finance Corporation” to provide loans and grants to states, cities, and the private sector to harden and expand climate-resilient infrastructure. And he calls to expand high-speed rail, with a pledge to build the nation’s first segment by 2025.
Numerous mayors, many of them the recipients of grants and support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, have endorsed Bloomberg as a candidate. “Mike knows what it takes to help cities expand infrastructure,” said Steve Benjamin, the three-term mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, on a Bloomberg campaign press call on Tuesday. “He’s been an ally and an advocate.” And transportation advocates have extolled his infrastructure plan’s focus on public transit.
Bloomberg cracked fourth place in a national poll this week, having already spent $248 million on TV campaign advertising. But his candidacy has drawn critical attention to his past policies as New York mayor, particularly the controversial stop-and-frisk program and his heavily technocratic approach to municipal governance. When it comes to infrastructure, the biggest question about Bloomberg’s approach might be whether translating methods that worked in New York City to communities across the country is as simple as data and dollars. Most places in the U.S. bear little resemblance to high-density New York, and sprawling development patterns have long been a challenge to the viability of car-free transportation. Although the Bloomberg campaign’s housing platform seeks to encourage housing construction around transportation and jobs, his transportation proposals do not address this.
Sadik-Khan said that the Bloomberg White House would be cognizant of such issues. “We are prioritizing transit-oriented land use plans in approving all new transit and rail projects,” she wrote in an email. “[We will] site new federal facilities in metro areas that have transit accessibility.”
Such a cities-first approach stands in marked contrast to the efforts of President Donald Trump, whose administration has consistently sought to direct resources and political power away from urban America. Despite repeated pledges for a $1 trillion infrastructure package on the 2016 campaign trail, President Trump has not signed such legislation during his administration. So far, the White House’s signature accomplishments on infrastructure and transportation include expanding drilling access in public lands, rolling back the fuel standards of the Obama era, overturning environmental review requirements for federal infrastructure projects and building a border wall costing $11 billion so far, or about $20 million per mile. America’s transportation sector contributes about 30 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gases and has made little progress in cutting planet-warming fossil fuel emissions.
As part of their infrastructure and climate plans, many presidential contenders have offered ideas for radically expanding electric vehicle subsidies and charging infrastructure, and some have put forth ideas for reducing the rising tide of traffic fatalities. Bloomberg’s infrastructure proposal comes a few days after his campaign released an exceptionally detailed pitch for decarbonizing the transportation sector specifically, with calls to electrify all new cars by 2035, expand fuel-efficiency standards and electric vehicle subsidies, and build out bus, rail, walking, and biking options.
“We haven’t had a coherent vision for our national transportation goals since we built the interstate highway system,” Sadik-Khan said. “Check, we did that. It’s time for a new plan.”