OPED: To protect roads, bridges face climate facts
President Donald Trump has proclaimed November "Critical Infrastructure and Resilience Month." He is right to recognize the key role that infrastructure plays in assuring the nation's health, security and prosperity. However, it is important to recognize that much of our critical infrastructure — especially transportation systems in coastal areas — is anything but resilient. We can change that by facing up to climate threats and designing our infrastructure accordingly.
Climate threats are real, and growing. Experience has shown, and scientific studies have confirmed, that sea levels are rising at accelerating rates — and could swell by eight feet by the end of this century. With rising seas comes a heightened risk of storm surges and flooding from hurricanes, tropical storms, and Nor'easters. And warmer oceans are fueling record-breaking storms, like the hurricanes that recently devastated Texas, Florida and the Caribbean.
At the same time, extended heat waves, droughts and heavy rains are occurring with greater frequency. This places extraordinary pressures on highways and roads, tunnels and bridges, telecommunications networks, power generation plants and transmission lines, and water and sewage treatment facilities.
While the Trump administration has withdrawn from efforts to mitigate climate change, we have no choice but to adapt to a warmer world. Indeed, even if the international community reduced greenhouse gas emissions to the levels called for in the Paris climate agreement, gases already in the atmosphere will ensure warming for centuries to come.
A proactive response must go beyond the investments in research and development President Trump has recommended. Today, it is crucial to incorporate resilience into infrastructure planning.
Design standards for new or rebuilt infrastructure should reflect the realities of a changing climate. For example, federal standards should require that bridges over navigable waters be constructed at greater heights and incorporate design elements that will enable them to withstand severe flooding and storm surges. And FEMA should mandate that infrastructure damaged by catastrophic events be rebuilt to higher and more resilient standards. But the Trump administration is moving in the opposite direction: In August, the president rescinded an Obama-era standard designed to reduce flood risks to infrastructure.
Retrofitting (or even relocating) existing elements of the transportation system, like coastal rail lines and subway networks, will be extraordinarily expensive. But disaster is expensive too — and the costs of disaster are borne by society, often crowding out other necessary investments. Consider this: if sea levels rise a foot or more, the runways of virtually every major commercial airport on the East and Gulf coasts would be under water. That is a cost we cannot bear.
Resilient infrastructure — while costly — is a wise investment. Every dollar spent on disaster prevention and resilience saves an average of $4 down the line.
Protecting our infrastructure is essential to Americans' mobility, safety and security. Recognizing the importance of infrastructure –– as President Trump did in his proclamation –– is a good start. But the proof of this administration's commitment will depend upon the policies it proposes and implements. Those policies must face the facts about our changing climate, and prepare our vital infrastructure for a warmer, wilder future.
— Emil H. Frankel is a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation and served as assistant secretary for transportation policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation under President George W. Bush.