The hidden vulnerability in our transportation infrastructure

The hidden vulnerability in our transportation infrastructure

transportation infrastructure

This article is drawn from the Transport Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Tuesdays.

The major climate change report that the conflicted U.S. government dumped on Black Friday takes a look at how sea level rise, extreme storms and severe heat waves will affect American transportation systems. The big picture: It'll be really expensive, and it will affect the most vulnerable among us

First, you should know that America's transportation infrastructure — roads, bridges, rail, ports and the IT and electricity that help them operate — are already woefully underfunded. These systems already need increased investment to meet basic population growth and economic development.

Second, transportation is a world of haves and have-nots. In urban areas with well-maintained transportation options, communities can thrive and get to work and school. In other rural and marginalized areas, under-funded transit systems can contribute to economic stagnation and lost educational opportunities.  

So increased environmental stressors, such as sea level rise and inland flooding, will exacerbate these already worrisome problems.

The sticker shock will be real: Just fixing and maintaining paved roads in a future of extreme weather and rising seas could cost $20 billion every year in the U.S., predicts the report.

And when transportation networks fail, it'll affect the disadvantaged the most: 

"Disruptions to the transportation network during extreme weather events can disproportionately affect low-income people, older adults, people with limited English proficiency and other vulnerable urban populations. These populations have fewer mobility options, reduced access to healthcare and reduced economic ability to purchase goods and services to prepare for and recover from events," write the authors. 

The report also acknowledges that much of its look at vulnerabilities in transportation networks relies on just looking at how individual stressors will affect certain assets, such as how flooding will damage a bridge. But there hasn't been much sophisticated research on how the myriad and combined effects of extreme weather and sea level rise will affect interdependent transportation networks. There's just a lot we don't know

Some good news in all of this: Cities and state transportation departments are starting to invest in resilience and adaptation planning for transportation infrastructure. They don't really have a choice. And as these are complicated systems and environmental problems, a local approach will be needed.