Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
The Democratic candidate’s $1 trillion pledge to upgrade roads, utilities, and public transportation has an emphasis on road safety and climate adaptation.
Pete Buttigieg is no longer the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. But with the release of a new infrastructure plan on Friday, he says he’s still thinking like one. The Democratic presidential candidate’s proposal includes $1 trillion in investment in roads, utilities, broadband, public transportation, and lead mitigation, while putting more power in the hands of local communities to use funding on their own terms.
“As a former mayor, I know that priority-based budgets made locally are better than budget-based priorities set in Washington,” Buttigieg wrote in a statement. “That’s why we will ensure that federal funds go to the cities, counties, tribes, towns, and states that need resources, but otherwise already stand prepared to create good jobs and combat climate change by investing in infrastructure.”
Besides its decidedly local bent, the candidate’s focus on tying infrastructure overhauls with climate adaptation and his promise to repair America’s roads and highways largely mirror the goals of opponents like Senator Amy Klobuchar and former Vice President Joe Biden (They have released $1 trillion and $1.3 trillion plans, respectively.) His commitment to pair massive projects with a $200 billion job retraining program and 6 million new jobs has echoes of the Green New Deal, supported by candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Buttigieg goes further, however, in linking road-building with road safety: As president, he’d commit to a national Vision Zero policy. Sweden, where the traffic safety movement was born in 1997, has made Vision Zero a national priority; other countries like Canada and the Netherlands have followed suit by launching country-wide campaigns and setting out sustainable safety approaches, respectively. In the U.S., however, Vision Zero goals have been set at the state and city level, with varying levels of ambition and success.
But progress for the national Vision Zero movement has been building: In 2018, the RAND Corporation worked with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Safety Council to create national Vision Zero policy, aiming for zero traffic fatalities countrywide by 2050. Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who served under President Obama from 2013 to 2017, put his weight behind the movement, too. Still, 35,800 people died in automobile crashes in the U.S. in 2018—and pedestrian and cyclist fatalities increased.
To nudge transportation agencies to deliver on safety goals, Buttigieg’s plan uses carrots and sticks: incentives to states and localities that invest in rebuilding unsafe streets, and the threat of infrastructure cuts to those that don’t make progress. “Today, states can legally set annual targets that allow an increase in roadway deaths and serious injuries each year,” the plan reads. “[Buttigieg’s] administration will require states to actively improve their safety records or road design processes, or else lose federal funding for other roadway projects.” He does not provide a year goal for achieving vision zero.
The plan also calls for doubling funding for the Transportation Alternatives Program to install bike lanes and crosswalks, allocating $1 billion to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Federal Highway Administration to combat dangerous driving, and funding more research into road safety in rural regions, which account for nearly half of all traffic deaths.
While Buttigieg’s climate plan, released this fall, leaned on electrifying personal vehicles, and his infrastructure plan centers cars in its safety agenda, both also call for robust public transportation improvements and electrification. Typically sparsely connected rural areas, especially, are prioritized, with $12 billion earmarked for rural public transportation, transit hubs, and ride-sharing partnerships. Part of his labor transition fund will help “transportation workers who may be affected by the increasing adoption of autonomous technologies.”
Buttigieg mentions pursuing high-speed rail, but doesn’t lay out how much he’d spend. Amtrak superfan Joe Biden has been more vocal about his plans to revive the high-speed rail network once championed by Obama, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ climate plan lays out $607 billion in investment in a regional high-speed rail network.
To pay for some of these infrastructure projects, and “make the Highway Trust Fund solvent,” Buttigieg will put $165 billion into the fund, but is also tasking DOT to come with a “new and sustainable” user fee-based system. The plan outlines a transition from a gas tax to a vehicle-miles-traveled model—with “discounted rates … offered on a sliding scale based on income”—that’s already being tried out in several localities. Reforming the capital gains tax, repealing Trump tax cuts, and closing real estate tax loopholes (which can add up to $400 billion over a decade) are expected to cover much of the rest, according to Politico.
Outside of the transportation realm, Buttigieg’s plan links equity and health to infrastructure goals: It aims to cut the average family’s water bill—which, left unpaid, can in some cases lead to eviction—in half, invest $100 billion in toxic lead removal, and provide clean drinking water for all. He’s also the only candidate to propose a Sea Level Defense fund.
Buttigieg’s experience as a former mayor informs many of his policy prescriptions, and this infrastructure plan is no different. Where Donald Trump sought public-private partnerships, Buttigieg seeks local buy-in: He’d double the transportation grant program formerly known as TIGER Grants (now called BUILD) to $2 billion, and retool it to prioritize accepting local projects that “serve low-income communities,” and double Community Development Block Grant funding to $6 billion.
John Porcari, former deputy secretary of USDOT under Obama, helped advise on Buttigieg’s plan (as well as on the past and forthcoming plans of other Democratic candidates he declined to name). “There are positive aspects to all the [infrastructure] plans released so far,” he told CityLab. “What Buttigieg has really done is look at the essence of where decision-making needs to be made, which is at the local level, and provide better tools at that level.”
At a convening of the U.S. Conference of Mayors last month, a group of mayors named infrastructure as one of their top priorities in a 2020 candidate. With this plan, Buttigieg seemed to address them directly. “Under my administration, local governments will finally have a partner in Washington,” he wrote.