People celebrate Earth Day in many ways – many plant trees, and others learn more about recycling, actions they can take to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and the impacts of climate change. Taking action to reduce our emissions and protect our resources and infrastructure against the increasing number of extreme weather events is critical.
Transportation is the system that connects us, no matter if it’s by road, rail, boat, or plane. The transportation system that the country depends on is becoming increasingly more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change including extreme heat, precipitation events, and sea-level rise. Transportation professionals are at a key moment to ensure that the investments we make today will decades to come and be resilient to increases in storm or flooding events, land loss due to sea-level rise, and increasing temperatures.
What’s at stake?
According to the United States Global Change Research Program, an inter-agency initiative managed by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there’s a lot at stake. The U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit outlines how vast the US transportation system is and how increased precipitation and temperature along with sea-level rise could impact our nation’s transportation infrastructure. With more than four million miles of publicly owned roads, 600,000 bridges, 140,000 miles of rail, and a complex network of ports supporting 31,500 barges and 200 ocean-going vessels (U.S. flagships), extreme weather events can and will impact all of us. Understanding the projected impacts in areas across the country will help communities, organizations, and governments prepare for and recover from extreme events.
What are extreme events and how are they expected to change?
The United States Department of Agriculture defines extreme events as “occurrences of unusually severe weather or climate conditions that can cause devastating impacts on communities and agricultural and natural ecosystems. Weather-related extreme events are often short-lived and include heat waves, freezes, heavy downpours, tornadoes, tropical cyclones, and floods.”1
Climate change is expected to accelerate events related to extreme precipitation, heat waves, and high temperatures as well as sea-level rise. In 2021, NOAA reported 20 weather/climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion across the nation.2 No state will be immune from changes that will impact their transportation system.
Flooding from extreme precipitation events and sea-level rise pose the most significant and long-lasting impacts to our land-based transportation system. Impacts to infrastructure include wash-outs, erosion, and scour. Coupled with an aging transportation system, this will only increase the impacts to people’s livelihoods, health, and safety.
High temperatures will also have an impact. Thermal expansion (metal on rails and bridges), rail buckling, and asphalt degradation all pose threats to transportation infrastructure. As extreme temperatures increase, there may be new challenges for maintenance and repair, since infrastructure is typically engineered to only withstand changes in certain temperature ranges.
What can be done?
As transportation professionals, we have a unique opportunity and responsibility to prepare and plan for these changes. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) has allocated funding to help states plan for, design, and build more climate-resilient infrastructure and help communities prepare for extreme events. In fact, $50 billion is designated for climate resilience to help communities protect against droughts, heat, and floods. For example, the Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-saving Transportation (PROTECT) Program represents IIJA’s most concerted effort to provide for transportation resiliency. The PROTECT Program establishes a formula and a competitive grant program to help States improve the resiliency of transportation infrastructure. Under the formula program, states may spend money on development phase resiliency activities (including planning, feasibility analysis, revenue forecasting, environmental review, preliminary engineering and design work, and other preconstruction activities) or on construction, reconstruction, rehabilitation, acquisition of property, environmental mitigation, construction contingencies, and equipment acquisition for the purposes of resiliency. The competitive discretionary grant program is intended to help fund the creation of resilience plans, resilience planning data tools, technical capacity building, and evacuation planning and preparation (through “Resiliency Grants”) and to ensure the availability of evacuation routes to provide safe passage during an evacuation (through Community Assistance and Evacuation Route Grants).
The inclusion of technology will further expand the resiliency of infrastructure and our transportation system. Technologies like Iteris’ ClearGuide system provide real-time transportation monitoring. The Alabama DOT deployed the ClearGuide program to assist with more streamlined, efficient transportation responses to hurricane evacuations. This technology allows the DOT to identify bottlenecks in the system where congestion would delay evacuations. Technologies like ClearGuide allow for evacuation planning and infrastructure modifications that can save lives by saving time.
Wyoming’s connected vehicle pilot enables localized road condition information, such as fog or icy roads, to be broadcast from a roadside unit and received by a connected vehicle. These alerts, which include work zone warnings, distress notifications, forward collision warnings, and spot weather impact warnings, can serve to increase truck resiliency to blow-overs along I-80 during harsh winter conditions.
IIJA offers a unique opportunity to plan for the growing number of extreme weather events and increasing sea levels. As we reflect on Earth Day 2022, we should also take action to ensure that IIJA funds and programs are increasing our transportation’s resilience as well as future-proofing our infrastructure with state-of-the-art technologies that will ensure these investments pay off for decades to come.
Morgan Ellis is the Vice President of Sustainable Transportation at ITS America