TRANSPORTATION POINT EXTRA
DOT strategies for resilient transportation systems
As the frequency and severity of unprecedented extreme weather events continues to rise, DOTs are seeking ways to move beyond responding to disasters and are instead proactively considering climate resilience as part of infrastructure planning, design and asset management.
An ongoing resilience planning process can help DOTs:
- Incorporate resilience into agency operations
- Reach consensus on risk tolerance for weather hazards
- Improve asset management decision-making and reduce long-term operations and maintenance costs
- Identify and prioritize capital investments that improve resilience
Climate resilience plans will vary from state to state based on localized weather hazards, infrastructure assets and risk tolerance. An important first step for any plan is a statewide vulnerability assessment that evaluates infrastructure assets in the context of possible future climate and extreme weather projections to help agencies assess how to manage different risk scenarios.
Engineering best practices tend to consider historical weather data from the past 100 years as the basis of infrastructure design. However, climate projections indicate future weather impacts will be vastly different than they have been in the past. Examining these projections as potential future scenarios with differing impacts to each state’s transportation assets will help drive informed decision-making.
For example, if a model shows potential river flooding or sea level rise ranging from a very likely two feet to a much less likely 12 feet near a port or highway, the agency must determine what risk scenario to adopt for initial planning purposes. That scenario should consider factors such as likelihood of impacts, community benefits, the criticality of the asset and the cost to reduce risk. Continual data gathering practices and analysis tools allow resilience plans to be dynamic, remain relevant and be refined over time as more information becomes available.
Today’s geospatial analytical technology and tools can help DOTs integrate advanced climate analytics and geographically specific climate models with infrastructure data to establish the foundation for asset vulnerability.
The most rigorous inventory of infrastructure information includes physical transportation structures such as bridges, highways, ports, and communications systems, electrical systems, maintenance facilities, stormwater infrastructure (e.g. culverts) and other elements that support that infrastructure.
New technology such as advanced LiDAR and drone imaging systems can speed the process and reduce the cost of developing the inventory, assessing the condition of assets and integrating location-specific climate risk analysis for each one. Interactive geospatial visualizations (e.g. maps and dashboards) can help simplify these complex interactions for broad stakeholder engagement to define shared transportation resilience goals and reach consensus.
Once the vulnerability assessment is complete, DOTs will have a prioritized list of resilience-related projects. Multidisciplinary teams of planners and engineers may then develop specific concepts, from nature-based solutions such as living shorelines to civil engineering designs that improve stormwater management. These solutions may then be incorporated into improvement programs for further development in the traditional transportation planning and engineering process.
The resilience planning process frequently involves complex, value-driven conversations with stakeholders and the community at large. Establishing a committed stakeholder group of community and industry partners that can act as advisors through the entire process—from climate modeling to scenario planning and risk tolerance exercises— is critical to effective resilience planning. Advisory committees can help reach consensus and meet agreed-upon objectives and outcomes.
Comprehensive infrastructure solutions will also require close collaboration among state, regional, county and city planning organizations and local elected officials. A state-owned highway that is built to withstand future impacts is only fully resilient if the local bridges and roads that connect people and goods to the highway are resilient as well. In some cases, the best solutions might be precluded through state and local regulatory barriers. Inviting state lawmakers and other partners with knowledge and understanding of a state’s transportation assets can help with broader policy discussions, including funding and other long-term needs related to a resilience plan.
Risk-based Asset Management
A thorough vulnerability assessment as part of a comprehensive resilience plan will help DOTs integrate asset criticality, climate risk and other mobility and community priorities into asset management plans and programs. Adequate protection from climate variability is a key factor in determining and extending the expected life of transportation facilities. Incorporating resilience into asset management can help agencies prepare for a future that is becoming more difficult to foresee and make transportation systems more robust to withstand extreme events.
Federal Funding Opportunities
Implementing a robust resilience strategy requires significant funding. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021 offers a transformational opportunity to help pay for resilience plans and projects to mitigate the impacts of sea level rise, flooding, wildfires, extreme weather events and other natural disasters.
With $1.4 billion in funding available through 2026 as part of the Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient and Cost-Saving Transportation (PROTECT) program, the law allows for a reduction in required local matches for DOTs that have developed statewide Resilience Improvement Plans (RIPs) with a prioritized list of resilience projects. A portion of funds can be used for construction activities that address the incremental costs to make infrastructure resilient to extreme weather.
Accessing the funds requires taking a systematic approach to transportation system resilience, which entails many of the steps outlined above, including using climate modeling to determine asset vulnerability and prioritization based on criticality.
An Ongoing Process
Climate resilience planning and implementation is an iterative and ongoing process that will evolve over time as more information becomes available through research, improved data analytics and analysis methodologies. By embracing a philosophy of continual planning, starting with detailed examinations of risk and then implementing needed solutions, resilience planning can mitigate negative impacts and create safer, more sustainable infrastructure systems that set DOTs up for success far into the future.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Jeff Malloy, PhD
Climate Resilience Technical Director
Jeff Malloy is HNTB’s climate resilience technical director in Massachusetts. He leverages 20 years of experience in environmental science and planning, urban climate change governance, public policy implementation and social justice to help transportation agencies promote strategies that enhance climate resilience, social mobility, equity and accessibility.
Contact him at (978) 259-9268 or email@example.com
Loreana Marciante, PMP
Department Manager, Resilient Infrastructure and Strategic Planning
Loreana Marciante is HNTB’s department manager for resilient infrastructure and strategic planning in the Digital Transformation Solutions group. Loreana has over two decades of experience in the urban built environment — at the intersection of transportation innovation and sustainable development — she is passionate about technology forward solutions and strategic pathways that lead to a more resilient, equitable and climate friendly transportation system.
Contact her at (425) 456-8588 or firstname.lastname@example.org