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November 12th, 2009
the no. 13 line
Investing in Disaster


By Samuel I. Schwartz and Morgan Whitcomb

The prophet, Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” For those of us in the infrastructure world, Yogi Berra was not only prescient but, as he might say himself, able to predict the future. How else can we explain 100 year storms that occur every 10 years or so, or that bridges built to last 100 years will only see their 60th birthday?

A terrific example of how time ‘sped up’ in the past century, is a review of construction of New York City’s Second Avenue subway now in its 71st year since being proposed in 1929 (there have been many starts and stops). By the time the subway line opens, it will already be at risk for flooding in a storm surge. In 1929, no one could have guessed that global temperatures would rise 1.33°F by the end of the century and are projected to rise 10°F in the next. When tunneling finally began in 1972, only a few scientists were thinking that the world might be in danger. At the time of the most recent groundbreaking in 2007, we had already realized that sea levels will rise and that serious weather events like storm surges and hurricanes will occur with greater frequency.

The 2nd Avenue Subway, along with other transportation and civil engineering infrastructure, are designed against failure events according to their frequency. The 100-year storm is a mainstay in structural design. The 2nd Avenue subway, and most other civil infrastructure, was designed to resist a storm that should occur only every 100 years. Recently, experts are discovering that the “100-year storm” as we thought of it before, will begin happening more often, anywhere from every 40 to even every 4 years.

This and other effects of climate change need to be considered and planned for immediately without waiting for the code to catch up with reality and for lessons to be learned the hard way. Without thoughtful design and planning, great infrastructure projects of today may be investments in future disasters with monstrous repairs and rebuilds.
The infrastructure of yesterday is yet another problem we have to face. A few years ago, the New York City subway system was shut down for hours just due to heavy rain. A Category 1 storm surge would put dozens of subways stations underwater. And it’s not just underground transportation infrastructure that is at risk. There are high winds in storms that will rattle our already shaky bridges and buildings, waves which will send debris into our bridge piers and ports, floods that will wash away our roads and permafrost melting underneath Alaska.

A study released earlier this year written by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and partly by the US Department of Transportation only begins to address these concerns. Its main finding on transportation infrastructure is this: there are no studies in existence which analyze land elevation, population and infrastructure distribution accurately enough for local and region planning and decision-making. It also points out the severe consequences of this lack of knowledge. Even when small stretches of road or rail are hit by floods or storm surges, the effect ripples throughout the region. If a few meters of a highway leading to a major port are closed, the delivery of basic goods is crippled. A storm surge can reduce the clearance under a bridge, preventing imports from reaching our ports. Flooded roads will stop people from evacuating.

States need to know what will happen to their infrastructure when a climate change event occurs, how often events will occur and how to mitigate damages and disruptions and even prevent them altogether. Comprehensive studies, like the ones that the US EPA says we need, can give states the information they require to plan. The plans can include many mitigations, like how and where to evacuate, where will trucks be rerouted, which waterfront areas need to be protected by coastal engineering measures, which roads should be moved, raised, protected or redesigned. Even more importantly, it can also guide current and future infrastructure investments and repairs. Design criteria can be established so we don’t keep building vulnerable transportation infrastructure.

Some places aren’t waiting for anyone to tell them how to plan for the future. Alaska already knows that the effects of climate change will cause $40 billion in replacements and repairs in its transportation and utilities infrastructure by 2030. New York State is using the expertise of universities to find out how much damage will be done to transportation and communications infrastructure from events like storm surges and freezing rain. Studies need to be performed for every state and region and the information gathered should be synthesized and distributed.

There are federal guidelines for “State Climate Action Plans.” The plans are focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which is an imperative. But we are already beyond a few climate milestones and change is coming, no matter how many bus fleets we convert to hybrid electrics, how many bikes lanes we create or how many states adopt taxes on Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). These action plans need to react to the consequences of climate change, in addition to efforts to slow it. The federal guidelines can include guidance for completing the studies that are necessary for local planning and options for subsidizing or funding these studies. States can also be compelled to act responsibly. To stir the movement toward responsible planning and design, federally funded transportation projects should be required to have the effects of climate change considered in the design. If we don’t act soon to understand how our transportation infrastructure will be impacted by climate change we could, quite literally, be under water.

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