Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Spare tire, jumper cables, and… wading boots?

Posted by Daniel Hall on March 12, 2008

A couple of new government studies assess the impacts climate change is going to have on U.S. transportation infrastructure, including roads, ports, and rail lines. Some of the quoted statistics are a little nerve-wracking. According to today’s New York Times the report put out by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program highlights some major vulnerabilities:

Produced by a collaboration among agencies that included the United States Geological Survey, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Transportation, the report offers three estimates for sea-level rise by 2100: about 16 inches a century, a rate it said had already been exceeded; about two feet, an estimate many scientists regard as optimistic; and up to three feet, which the report says would be catastrophic for wetlands and other coastal features but that is “less than high estimates suggested by more recent publications.”

The multiagency report cited the Port of Wilmington in Delaware as an example. The report says that if the sea level rises by two feet or even a bit less, 70 percent of port property will be affected.

Meanwhile, it says, such a rise in sea level would leave almost 2,200 miles of major roads and almost 900 miles of rail lines in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and the District of Columbia “at risk for regular inundation.”

I guess if I live long enough I am going to be boating to work.

Here’s the lede from the NYTimes’ story, and some further info on the other report:

A rise in sea levels and other changes fueled by global warming threaten roads, rail lines, ports, airports and other important infrastructure, and policy makers and planners should be acting now to avoid or mitigate their effects, according to new government reports.

While increased heat and “intense precipitation events” threaten these structures, the greatest and most immediate potential impact is coastal flooding, according to one of the reports, by an expert panel convened by the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

Another study, a multiagency effort led by the Environmental Protection Agency, sounds a similar warning on infrastructure but adds that natural features like beaches, wetlands and fresh-water supplies are also threatened by encroaching saltwater.

The new reports offer detailed assessments of vulnerability in the relatively near term. Both note that coastal areas are thickly populated, economically important and gaining people and investment by the day, even as scientific knowledge of the risks they face increases. Use of this knowledge by policy makers and planners is “inadequate,” the academy panel said.

“It’s time for the transportation people to put these things into their thought processes,” Henry G. Schwartz Jr., the chairman of the Research Council panel, said in an interview.

Noting that 60,000 miles of coastal highways are already subject to periodic flooding, the academy panel called for policy makers to survey vulnerable areas — “roads, bridges, marine, air, pipelines, everything,” Dr. Schwartz said — and begin work now on plans to protect, reinforce, move or replace on safer ground. Those tasks will take years or decades and tens of billions of dollars, at least, he said.

The National Research Council report is available here. A couple of the recommendations from the summary include:

The significant costs of redesigning and retrofitting transportation infrastructure to adapt to the potential impacts of climate change suggest the need for more strategic, risk-based approaches to investment decisions. Transportation planners and engineers should incorporate more probabilistic investment analyses and design approaches that apply techniques for trading off the costs of making the infrastructure more robust against the economic costs of failure and should communicate these trade-offs to policy makers who make investment decisions and authorize funding. One model is the California Seismic Retrofit Program, which uses a risk-based approach to analyze vulnerability to earthquakes and criticality of highway bridges to determine priorities for retrofitting and replacement.


One of the most effective strategies for reducing the risks of climate change is to avoid placing people and infrastructure in vulnerable locations. Transportation planners are not currently required to consider climate change and its effects on infrastructure investments. Land use decisions are made primarily by local governments, which have too limited a perspective to account for the broadly shared risks of climate change. Integration between transportation and land use planning is uncommon. Federal planning regulations should require that climate change be included as a factor in the development of public-sector, long-range transportation plans; eliminate any perception that such plans be limited to 20 to 30 years; and require collaboration in plan development with agencies responsible for land use, environmental protection, and natural resource management to foster more integrated transportation–land use decision making.

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