Preparing Our Transportation Systems for Climate Change
What does transportation have to do with adapting to climate change? Photo by Peter Blanchard.

What does transportation have to do with adapting to climate change? Photo by Peter Blanchard.

We know climate change is happening and that its impacts on our society will be serious.  Despite this knowledge, planners and elected leaders are not doing enough to prepare our transportation infrastructure for global warming’s effects.  That was the message of Friday’s panel discussion, “Perspectives on Adaptation to Climate Change,” hosted by the Engineers Forum on Sustainability.

The discussion began when panel moderator Miriam Heller, a Visiting Senior Fellow at EMBARQ,  echoed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s conclusion that we can no longer focus exclusively on avoiding the unmanageable, but must begin managing the unavoidable.  In other words, because of scientists’ consensus that certain effects of climate change will occur, it is not enough to simply concentrate on climate change prevention.  We must also implement strategies to help us adapt to global warming and reduce our vulnerability.  However, climate change adaptation is costly, dependent upon precise data, difficult to justify in the face of uncertain impacts, and reliant on strong institutions, governance, and effective cross-border cooperation.

Two panelists focused on the complexities of climate change adaptation as it relates to transportation in the United States.  First, Dr. George Eads of Charles River Associates outlined the results of a Transportation Research Board study of how climate change will impact the U.S.’s transportation infrastructure and operations.  His presentation underscored the fact that smart design, construction, operations and maintenance changes will be critical to the effective functioning of tomorrow’s transportation systems.

Dr. Eads discussed four impacts of climate change that will affect our nation’s transportation infrastructure:

  1. Sea levels will rise, jeopardizing coastal roadways, railways, airports and transit systems.
  2. An increase in the number of hot days and heat waves will influence how infrastructure withstands high temperatures.  For example, highways could experience increased rutting (the carving of deep grooves by traffic) due to softer asphalt.
  3. A greater number of intense precipitation events could cause added transportation disruptions, as could more frequent strong hurricanes.
  4. Finally, rising arctic temperatures could threaten ice roads and highways built on permafrost in Alaska.

Transportation professionals must act today to minimize disruptions to the nation’s transportation systems tomorrow.  First, climate change must be incorporated into decision frameworks.  Federal, state, and local governments, in collaboration with owners and operators of infrastructure, should inventory critical infrastructure, particularly in vulnerable coastal areas.  When making investment decisions, governments and private infrastructure providers should consider climate change adaptation in their long-term capital improvement plans, facility designs, maintenance practices, operations, and emergency response plans.  They should apply risk-based investment analyses that weigh the costs of adapting infrastructure against the costs of failure.

Eads emphasized the need for detailed local data about expected climate changes and their timing.  The impacts of climate change will vary by region, and transportation decision makers must understand these localized effects in order to plan for global warming and justify spending.  Accordingly, communication must be improved between climate scientists, federal agencies and local leaders.  In addition, researchers at federal agencies and universities should work to address the needs of transportation decision makers, providing them with finer-scale data and better decision support tools.

Beyond updating decision frameworks, transportation professionals must begin implementing adaptation strategies.  Emergency response plans should be integrated into transportation operations.  Design standards should be reevaluated to accommodate climate change.  Transportation and land use planning should include climate change considerations in order to avoid placing people and infrastructure in at-risk locations.  New monitoring techniques should be developed to track conditions and warn of impending failure.  Finally, new organizational arrangements allowing for cross-jurisdictional cooperation should be created in order to address specific climate change impacts.

Next, Robert Ritter of the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Planning, Environment and Realty built on Dr. Eads’ presentation, describing current climate change adaptation activities in the U.S. transportation sector.  Overall, adaptation activity is minimal.  Few state departments of transportation are addressing climate change adaptation as a distinct policy or program area.  Less than half the states have adaptation plans or even a recommendation to formulate one in their climate change action plan, and the ones that do leave out transportation.

Several states are taking action, undertaking activities such as mapping critical infrastructure, planning evacuation routes, relocating at-risk infrastructure, collecting expanded data, fostering inter-agency collaboration, and installing Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS).  Additionally, the U.S. Department of Transportation is assisting these efforts by formulating a national adaptation strategy, creating regional impact estimates, developing a framework for conducting vulnerability assessments, convening “Peer Exchanges” for states, and providing technical assistance.  More information on these activities can be found at the U.S. DOT’s Transportation and Climate Change Clearinghouse and this Federal Highway Administration climate information page.

Echoing a sentiment expressed by Dr. Eads, Mr. Ritter identified a key obstacle to ramping up adaptation efforts: the lack of geographically relevant data on climate change impacts.  However, an equally large hurdle was raised in the question-and-answer session following the panel – the political difficulty of implementing adaptation strategies.   Even with finer-grained data, the specific effects of climate change on a state will remain uncertain.  Advocates of adaptation are asking elected leaders to make tough decisions – for instance, to cordon off areas that will receive funding and others, such as coastal regions, that won’t – all to prepare for a phenomenon that we do not fully understand.  The current economic situation makes this even harder.

Undoubtedly, it would be foolish to ignore the imminent effects of climate change when we make decisions about our transportation infrastructure and operations.  But the uncertain magnitude, location and timing of these effects – combined with political realities – make adaptation a tough sell.

What do you think?  Will we be able to implement adaptation measures before it’s too late?  Or will the data fail to be convincing enough to persuade decision makers to allocate scarce resources?

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