Hurricane Sandy exposed vulnerabilities within the transportation infrastructure of one of the country’s most densely populated regions. Flooded tunnels, washed out roads and tracks, shuttered fuel supply lines and lack of electricity combined to cripple transportation in the region for days. The billions of dollars needed to repair this infrastructure comes at a time when dwindling state and federal transportation coffers are unable to keep up with rising infrastructure maintenance costs.
The region’s transportation network will be rebuilt, of course, but who will pay? Available emergency funds are almost always insufficient. Additional funds are often diverted from transportation maintenance budgets, a short-sighted approach that allows infrastructure to fall into disrepair and become more vulnerable to the next extreme weather event.
Days after the storm, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo reassured the public that “we will rebuild the subway system and it will be better than before.” In a changing climate with more frequent and intense storms, rebuilding our transportation systems to be stronger is critical. Systems will otherwise risk falling into a costly cycle of perpetual repair as 100-year storms hit again and again. Improvements to infrastructure resiliency, whether they are called risk management strategies, extreme weather preparedness or climate change adaptation, can help a region bounce back quickly from the next Sandy at considerably less cost.
Thanks to the tireless response of emergency crews and strong local leadership, the majority of the Northeast’s transportation network was back online, at varying capacities, within days after Sandy. Good decisions, such as the preemptive shutdown of public transit and moving aircraft out of the storm’s path, prevented the damage from being even worse. But many parts of the system are still down or limited, and a full recovery will require time and resources.
The federal government has a newfound ability to provide disaster relief to transit systems from the new transportation reauthorization bill passed in June. Developed in the wake of Hurricane Irene and other storms that had severely hobbled transit systems, the bill established a new public transit emergency relief program that empowers the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to issue grants to systems impacted by natural disasters. It will serve as a sister program to the existing emergency relief program in the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which released $29 million to Sandy-impacted states within two days of the storm for road and bridge repair.
However, the FTA is not able to use its new authority to help Sandy recovery efforts because the program has not yet been funded by Congress. Instead, the Department of Transportation (DOT) and other federal agencies are currently operating under a continuing resolution passed in September of older appropriations bills. Until Congress agrees to a new appropriations package, DOT cannot implement the transit emergency relief program or most of the reforms in the new transportation bill. That is why DOT was only able to tell transit officials that the FTA would “provide guidance in damage assessment and recovery, and [help] direct transit agencies to available federal assistance programs. The FTA will also help coordinate staff and equipment donations from transit agencies that haven't been impacted by the storm to those that have been most severely affected.”
Transit systems in the region will instead need to use the existing disaster relief model of relying on a stretched-thin Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and local emergency funds. Helpfully, FEMA has declared that it will fully cover the costs of all state and local government operations to repair transportation and power infrastructure in New York and New Jersey through November 9. Public officials are pledging to work to eliminate that deadline so that FEMA can cover all infrastructure repairs.
While that would be good news for affected systems and local governments, in the end it only shifts the multi-billion dollar price tag upstream, to the federal budget. The national burden of disaster recovery will only grow as climate change becomes more severe. By resolving to invest now to make our vulnerable transportation infrastructure more climate resilient, governments can protect public mobility and avoid much higher recovery costs in the future.
The next extreme weather event is not typically on the minds of those seeking to quickly rebuild with limited resources. But a system that is returned to pre-storm normalcy will be no better prepared for the next storm. Climate change is leading to more destructive storms, and rising sea levels will put coastal areas at unprecedented risk to storm surge. Transportation, like everything else, must adapt. Improving infrastructure’s resiliency to climate change and extreme weather costs is an upfront investment, one that pays off by reducing direct and indirect costs after future storms.
There are several barriers to transportation adaptation, though none are insurmountable. Funding is and will remain a major issue. Risk management investments are easy to cut from strained local and federal budgets, and greater political will is needed to protect long-term interests. Transportation planners and local officials need better access to information and tools to integrate climate change impacts into their decision-making. Every transportation system has a different set of priorities and challenges to climate adaptation, so climate information and tools scaled to the local level allow planners to implement region-specific climate solutions.
The report presents the findings of a workshop that brought together transportation and climate experts from academia, non-profits, and all levels of government, to identify critical information and technical assistance needs on climate change adaptation. The workshop, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), highlighted the need for improved communication and data sharing between climate scientists and transportation planners. Engineers and climate scientists do not always speak the same language, and greater mutual understanding between the two sides should help foster collaboration and, ultimately, more climate-resilient infrastructure.
In order to provide better climate information, NOAA proposed last year to reorganize itself to form a National Climate Service (NCS). Functioning similarly to NOAA’s National Weather Service, the NCS would provide critical one-stop shopping for local transportation officials and many others seeking climate information. Even though the reorganization would not have required new funding, the U.S. House of Representatives denied NOAA’s request. Climate adaptation planning is undermined without the NCS, and Congress would do well to reconsider their position.
The new transportation reauthorization bill deals very little with climate change or extreme weather. It does, however, require DOT to make climate adaption a research priority. The bill states that DOT’s research and development activities must include efforts that “study vulnerabilities of the transportation system to seismic activities and extreme events and methods to reduce those vulnerabilities.” The bill also authorizes DOT to carry out “studies to improve flexibility and resiliency of infrastructure systems to withstand climate variability.” While this does little to actively reduce the climate-related threats to infrastructure, the research may lead to dedicated federal funds for transportation adaptation projects in the future.
DOT already has some adaptation planning work underway. The FTA is currently funding climate change adaptation assessment pilots in seven transit systems around the country. But at only $1 million in combined funding, the pilots are limited. FHWA’s Gulf Coast Study analyzed the impacts of climate change on coastal transportation infrastructure between Houston, Texas and Mobile, Alabama. The study is now developing risk management tools to make climate-related transportation decisions, using Mobile’s infrastructure as a model.
Working together, federal, state and local governments are making significant strides in planning how to prepare our transportation systems for climate change. But the actual implementation of adaptation measures lags behind. By integrating storm recovery and climate adaption, we could leverage recovery dollars with adaptation knowledge to rebuild transportation systems that are stronger and more cost-effective. This resilient infrastructure will leave us more prepared not just for the next storm, but for the many storms to follow.
Author: John-Michael Cross - jmcross [at] eesi.org