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Environment & Energy Report

INSIGHT: Highways, Infrastructure, Storms—It’s Time to Focus on Prevention

Oct. 31, 2019, 8:00 AM

Each time we face another hurricane, tornado or strong storm, it’s hard not to wonder how it will impact our communities. What will happen to our roads, bridges, levees, airports, homes power plants—or other piece of transportation infrastructure.

Weather events have increased in strength and number in recent years. In fact, 12 of the 15 most expensive insured disasters worldwide between 1970 and 2015 have happened since 2000. Three-fourths of those occurred in the United States.

At the same time, our infrastructure has experienced steady decline. Civil engineers grading the condition of infrastructure have not, since 1988, given roads a grade any better than a D+. Bridge conditions have failed to rise above a C+ since first being ranked in 1998.

Combine the rising costs of replacing storm damage with the declining condition of our transportation networks, and you quickly realize the increasing danger we face with each approaching storm.

Spend Up Front, Save More Later

Research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in partnership with the cement industry, shows that our nation could do better by building projects that can withstand the swelling force of the elements. For some hazard-prone areas, that might mean replacing typical light-frame construction with more hazard-resistant structural solutions. In others, it may simply involve increasing the nail size in roof panels, increasing the resistance of roof shingles, and using window shutters.

While these higher standards of construction cost slightly more initially, our research shows that they have lower costs over the long-term due to repairs from hazard damage. In some cases, like in hurricane-prone New Orleans, investments in resilient construction can pay back in as soon as two years.

This model applies to our roadway infrastructure as well. Though it may seem tempting to opt for short term, cheaper paving options, research from MIT has found that long-term planning and investments in more rigid, durable pavements result in lower long-term costs and even reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

This is because pavements exert a significant influence on the emissions of the vehicles that drive on them. For example, MIT has identified 1 billion gallons of wasted fuel on California’s highways over a five-year period due to road quality. These kinds of emissions can actually exceed those generated during the paving process and tend to be greater on less durable roads. So, just like with our homes, thinking long-term leads to roads with lower costs and environmental impacts.

This kind of farsighted planning results in smarter use of taxpayer dollars and is more important than ever since, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, chronic underfunding for the highway system has led to $836 billion-dollar backlog of repairs. Yet, lagging political will to increase gas taxes means that this backlog is only growing.

Today, our transportation network has gone from cutting-edge to frustrating and aged. Our challenges are big enough without the threat of rising coastal sea levels, more frequent and larger wildfires, and flooding.

Congress Needs to Act

Congress has started to rework its surface transportation reauthorization bill—which moved out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee recently. The full Senate is expected to take this up this fall and the House will soon follow. It’s an opportunity once again to address these unique challenges and to build off the success of last fall’s successful passage of the Disaster Recovery Reform Act, and to better fund infrastructure, while enacting policies that ensure stronger resilience and durability in catastrophic weather events.

The Senate’s version of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act Act, or the FAST Act, as the next six-year bill is known, proposes to increase overall spending on surface projects by 28 percent compared to current levels, investing $287 billion starting in 2021. The Senate language also authorizes new grant programs to address road and bridge resiliency, which will help improve road construction spending by targeting our spending repairs more effectively.

These investments will make roads and bridges last longer, ride better and increase fuel economy—therefore reduce vehicle greenhouse gas emissions.

When you couple this effort with new bipartisan House legislation to expand loans for pre-disaster resilient building and mitigation, it’s a start.

It’s important for Congress to take action on policies and programs that would ensure future projects can handle the worst of disasters. However, there are other steps that can accelerate our response to a growing number of climate-related events.

Accelerating Our Response to Climate-Related Events

Congress and the administration should support creation of a dedicated funding source for work to strengthen roads and bridges. The Federal Highway Administration also should develop standards and best practices for building resilient infrastructure.

The first $100 million in current annual Emergency Relief funding ought to be directed to mitigation projects that reduce future losses before disaster strikes such as realigning city design, fortifying key roadways and hardening homes, businesses, important public buildings and crucial water and power infrastructure. And federal benefit cost analysis processes should be updated to avoid giving lower scores to projects because of the added costs associated with hardening infrastructure against weather’s impacts.

Cities, counties, and states are taking action to address these concerns. Some jurisdictions are hiring chief resilience officers to guide planning and storm recovery efforts. Engineering schools are teaching the next generation of designers and builders to give more consideration to weather. Zoning codes are being reviewed where weather does not yield. And now we’re getting some movement in Congress.

Now is the time to act because more potential challenges and disastrous weather events are around the corner. We need every policy we can develop that strengthens and protects our infrastructure for the long haul. We need to focus more of our attention on a very worthy, and sorely needed, ounce of prevention.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Dr. Jeremy Gregory is executive director of the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub.

Michael Ireland is CEO of the Portland Cement Association, which includes companies like LaFargeHolcim (LHN.EB), Cemex (CX), and Oldcastle/Ash Grove (CRH).