Where Does Bernie Sanders Stand on Transportation and Cities?

With Bernie Sanders pulling off a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses, it’s time to take a closer look at his transportation policy platform.

Is Bernie's $1 trillion infrastructure plan enough to win your support? Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr
Bernie’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan would boost transit funding — and increase highway funding a lot more. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Two months ago, Clinton released a transportation platform that echoes a lot of the Obama administration’s agenda without including any ideas that might really upset the highway-centric status quo. Does Sanders do any better?

On Cities

Campaign finance reform, inequality, and climate change are the issues Sanders is running on — issues specific to cities aren’t central to his message. He does have a section on “improving the rural economy” where he mentions the state of Iowa, specifically, eight times. In fairness, platforms like that are common among all the candidates, thanks to a primary process that lavishes attention on voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

On Transportation

We do have an inkling of how President Sanders would try to handle transportation policy, thanks to a Senate bill he introduced early last year and his climate plan, which touches on transportation.

The legislation proposed increasing federal infrastructure funding to $1 trillion over five years. Of that, $773 billion would be dedicated to transportation — more than two-and-a-half times what was allocated in the five-year bill that Congress just passed.

This is an enormous increase, and the proposal is hard to take seriously as anything other than an aspirational goal post. Sanders has said it could be paid for entirely by a tax on overseas profits. (Congress is unlikely to sign off on anything like that; Obama proposed dramatically increasing funding for transportation a number of times but never succeeded.)

Sanders frames his infrastructure proposal largely as a jobs program, not as a way to shift spending priorities. The bill calls for across-the-board increases to established programs, and doesn’t appear to contain safeguards to prevent runaway highway spending. There are significant increases for the multi-modal TIGER program and intercity rail, and the establishment of a national infrastructure bank, but the resources set aside for those programs would be dwarfed by the new money available for highway-centric state DOTs.

The most encouraging transportation policy plank is in his climate plan, which includes calls to invest in walking, biking, transit, and intercity rail. But it’s the centerpiece of the plan, a carbon tax, that would do the most to encourage walkable development and more efficient forms of transportation — if it can ever get through Congress.

  • James Kennedy

    Earlier this week, I contacted the Sanders campaign by email to ask that they adopt the Strong Towns #NoNewRoads campaign. I’m a Sanders supporter, because on balance–even as someone who obsesses over transportation–it’s hard for me to imagine getting the chance to vote for someone like Sanders if we don’t take the chance to do so now. Sanders’ positions on a range of other issues are just entirely too important for me to ignore. But I do think this is a weakness of his campaign, and I’d like the Sanders folks to take a strong look at this and take the appropriate action. It would be especially smart in light of the fact that they might face a Bloomberg challenge.

    Here’s my write-up at RI Future: http://www.rifuture.org/nonewroads-how-bernie-sanders-should-preempt-michael-bloomberg.html

    No response yet from the campaign, although I’m not going to blame them for not sweating an email from a 80% blue state of only a million people a few days before the Iowa Caucuses. 😉 I hope they’ll respond soon though!

  • Transportation is a highly unionized sector: about 20%. His call for huge spending, even on highways, might be more strategic than we give him credit for.

  • UrbanProspector

    Seems like Bernie is willing to listen so long as the argument made also helps the working class or the environment. Any failure of his platform for urban issues is more likely ignorance rather than being set on bad policy. Like James Kennedy, I would love to get Bernie to adopt a Strong Towns philosophy when it comes to infrastructure and urban development. I’m sure he’d latch on to it given its implications for big box low wage stores.

  • David

    I visited Burlington recently where everyone seems to be conversant about urban planning, Sanders is widely credited for getting them way ahead of the curve on bike infrastructure before it was cool. As a born urbanist and former city mayor I think he has a much better grasp of these things than anyone else in the race, it’s just not an issue that plays big on the national stage.

  • James Kennedy

    We need to push back on him, then, and make it clear that whatever spending does come through his administration can’t be on new roads. I have this tension with a lot of progressives locally in Rhode Island, and it’s a hard call. But I don’t think that Bernie Sanders dreams in cloverleaf interchanges when he’s asleep at night. He probably has some unrealistic ideas about transit expansion into sprawl that need to be tamped down, but just judging from Burlington, VT, and Vermont in general, I think the kind of “rural development” Sanders thinks of is not the kind that you would find on the exurban edge of Cleveland, Ohio (no offense).

  • mrtuffguy

    Frankly, I think the race is over- Sanders had to win the first two on favorable ground to have any shot at shaking up the race before heading to less favorable states.

  • HamTech87

    A Sanders administration will depend on who gets picked for key transportation policy positions. I’m not sure the pretty good DOT head Ray LaHood was picked by Obama because of his progressive views on transit and street design guidelines. More likely he was picked due to his Obama and staff’s prior working relationship with him from years in Illinois, and his interest — increasingly rare among GOPers — in bipartisanship.

    As for getting a reply from the Sanders campaign, I wouldn’t expect one for a looong time. Unlike the Clinton campaign who have had years to prepare policy papers, etc., I bet the Sanders team never expected to be in close race and were just in it to try to pull her to the left. Now that it is a horse race, they’re totally focused on winning the nomination.

  • bolwerk

    IIRC, Obama did support various urban transportation initiatives and so did LaHood, so there had to be some synergy there. But it was also 2009, gas was pricey, and it was a good time to seek alternatives.

  • AnoNYC

    The first few states in the primary are conservative states with the exception of N.H. Sanders is more liberal than Hilary yet basically tied. Far too early to call the race.

    If I were Mrs. Clinton, I would be in a panic. She expected a landslide victory, but instead one Iowa by about 7 votes.

  • Honestly, I think he’s more focused on finance reform and equality. However, the fact is, both of these things, will lead a smart and honest person like Sanders to improved transit. Transit and biking can act as great equalizers. Additionally, finance reform could stop outside influences, like the Koch from running roughshod over local initiatives on transit as has happened in the past.

  • mrtuffguy

    Perhaps this is far afield from transportation planning but Iowa and New Hampshire have two of the three highest percentages of white liberal Democrats. The layout of the primaries could not have been more favorable to Sanders but it was too much to fight the weight of the entire party establishment. He’s done. http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/bernie-sanders-could-win-iowa-and-new-hampshire-then-lose-everywhere-else/

  • James Kennedy

    Maybe he should pick O’Malley. That was one thing that O’Malley had going for him over the other two candidates–he knew a lot about transit projects.

    I’d still be excited to see Elizabeth Warren as a running mate, but chances are she’ll say no. O’Malley may be a good pick.

    The other total curve-ball that Sanders could try would be to pick a very bipartisan, very libertarian-style Republican as a running mate. I’m not saying it has a snowball’s chance of happening. I’m just saying it would be worth it’s weight in gold in Hollywood scripting.

  • chooglincharley

    how come we don’t have this for nearly EVERY politician, broken down by State legislators and representatives?

  • calwatch

    Don’t forget the superdelegates who control about 20% of the delegates and are all party establishment people. While Clinton had a slight lead among superdelegates against Obama, she has a commanding lead over Sanders as state party leaders and congresspeople are not looking forward to sharing a ballot with a socialist.

  • calwatch

    O’Malley was the only candidate who focused on urban issues. If Baltimore hadn’t blown up due to the action of the cops who failed to secure Freddie Gray, he would have 20% or more of the delegates and would have at least been seen as viable moving to New Hampshire, which would allow him to compete in the more urban early primary/caucus states like Nevada and Georgia.

  • Matt

    You have to look at who votes in the Democratic Primary. In South Carolina and Nevada, you have mostly minorities and Sanders has not been able to reasonate with minorities yet as Clinton shows big leads among minority voters. Iowa and NH are not at all representative of the typical Democratic primary voter.

  • Michael Ellis Day

    Sanders mentioned his views on transportation policy when he was first elected to Congress, 25 years ago:

    True, it’s a comedic bit in response to a jokey question from Dave Barry and not a policy proposal, but it may give some sense of where his general sympathies are.

  • Jesternator

    Really? Spoken like some sort of corporate schill or (paid?) political operative (for Hillary maybe?). Why don’t we just let the primary process continue and allow THE PEOPLE to vote and express their opinions before people like you spout off? After all MrTuffGuy, WTF do you know? And apparently you don’t care for the rights of all those people from states that aren’t Iowa or New Hampshire. You have no comprehension of the hatred I have for Trolls like you. You just want people to roll over and serve your corporate masters. Well hopefully that is going to change this time…. although you’ll still try to steal the election.

  • Jesternator

    ALL DELEGATES at the Convention can change their votes. Stop with this “it’s inevitable” garbage. And it isn’t 20% of delegates…. stop LYING to people…. your Win at Any Cost is just the kind of stink that surrounds Hillary and makes people distrust her. You realize of course that Bernie could split off as an Indenpendent. 🙂

  • Jesternator

    All you armchair analysts and your wisdom amuse and infuriate me. LET THE PEOPLE CHOOSE (Vote). And stop trying to win the election (for Hillary) in Social Media with your corporate Astroturf campaign.

  • AnoNYC

    What are you talking about?

  • AnoNYC

    I disagree. Way too early to make that call.

    Sanders only lost by the smallest of margins. So small in fact that it could be erroneous.

  • AnoNYC

    As a minority, I disagree.

  • Jesternator

    No I’m not off base. You (and others) go blathering on and on about this and that when you just need to let the (voting) process happen and see how people vote. And the candidates and their campaigns needs to get their message out on the issues. And the PEOPLE must demand more from their candidates. The rest is just people like you either talking for their own ego or a lot of people trying to shape and influence the outcome. Those who post “the first two primaries/caucusses don’t count, Bernie doesn’t stand a chance” are a good example. But the same goes for those who insist that Bernie is “going to win” when again we’re very early in the process.

    And frankly, Bernie stands no chance to make change unless OTHER Progressives are voted in along with him. How many of you can actually name your Congressman and their stances on a number of crucial issues? Is there someone “better” who should be in their seat?

    And I don’t care as much as who voted before, traditionally turnout has been ridiculously low. I want to know who is going to turn out this time and how do we get more people to turn out to demand better government?

  • mrtuffguy

    You’re not versed in the art of persuasion, are you? In any case, try to remember back to 2008. Remember the exciting Democratic nomination battle where Obama would win a state then Clinton would win a state. In fact, it wasn’t very exciting at all- demographics were destiny. The same principle will play out here- IA and NH are two of Sanders’s strongest states by not winning IA he missed his chance to reshape the race in his favor.

  • Jesternator

    I’m not here to persuade you or anyone else. I just write the truth. Bernie hasn’t missed anything. Considering the “commanding lead” Hillary enjoyed previously (which she lost) and some of the games Hillary’s campaign played, as well as the bias of the state Democratic Party (including refusing releasing the raw data for scrutiny), I think Bernie did rather well being down only two delegates (he may have actually won, but we’ll likely never know). And as a result of that “close call”, and maybe in response to the contempt many people (Democrats & Independents) feel towards Hillary, Bernie picked up $3 Million in new campaign contributions. Not a bad consolation prize for 2nd by a nose. This is far from over. And again, ALL I AM ADVOCATING FOR is that we let the process continue and see what happens. Let the PEOPLE VOTE and express their desires. Then we’ll see whether we get a real convention or not?

  • Alex Brideau III

    I dunno. Don’t the Dems split up their delegates proportionally? If the next few states keep Sanders and Clinton neck and neck, the race may prove to be more interesting than planned. It seems the press I’ve read is predicting that Clinton’s nomination is inevitable, but they said that last time too, so I’m not convinced.

    In any case, it’s not my battle to fight, but it may prove interesting to watch from the sidelines, as the GOP primary season has been.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I agree that you’re a bit off base with your criticism of AnoNYC’s original comment. AnoNYC does not appear to be favoring either candidate, and is just stating that it’s too soon to consider Clinton the nominee, which is a very commonsense opinion and aligns with your postings noting that the voters still need to decide.

  • neroden

    Yes, the Democrats split delegates proportionally.

    It’s a bit complicated. Each state gets delegates not in proportion to state population, but by an average of:

    — the number of votes for the DEMOCRATIC candidate President in the state for the last three Presidential elections, divided by the national number of Democratic votes (so blue states get more delegates than population, red states get fewer delegates than population)
    — the electoral votes for the state for the last three years, divided by the total number of electoral votes (so states with disproportionate electoral votes like Wyoming get more delegates than population)

    Every state is *required* to assign its delegates to candidates in proportion to the votes the candidates receive. So if Bernie and Hillary tied in every single state, they’d go into the convention with equal numbers of delegates.

    Iowa was a tie. Bernie and Hillary are going into the convention with pretty much the same number of Iowa delegates.

    Then there’s weird stuff with bonus delegates and superdelegates, but anyway…

    Citation:
    http://www.thegreenpapers.com/P16/D-Alloc.phtml

  • neroden

    Superdelegates are about 1/6 of the delegates.

    However, if they overturned the will of the elected delegates, the party would implode spectacularly, in a wave of popular fury, and we’d probably see the highest Green Party vote in American history.

    Most of the Superdelegates know this. They will not vote to overturn the will of the elected delegates.

  • neroden

    Bernie Sanders is actually more popular with “Hispanic” people than Clinton, and more popular with “other non-white” people than Clinton is.

    Clinton is currently more popular among black people — we’ll see how long that lasts. She’s spouting Dunning School propaganda and, well, ugh. (Google “Clinton Dunning School”

  • neroden

    This is correct. Bernie has a very good record on bike and pedestrian infrastructure in Burlington.

  • neroden

    New roads are a disaster, but we do have a lot of old roads we need to rebuild.

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