Recently, I had a most interesting conversation with an engineer regarding the issue of climate change and design standards for bridges. This discussion arose from the need to replace a bridge in Crystal County where rising sea levels are going to be a substantial issue over the life time of the proposed new structure (75 years). The new design had raised the bridge two feet to accommodate larger boats from an upriver marina, however projected increases in sea level might required an additional two feet of clearance.
As I had been the point person for the initial climate change adaptation project (meaning I scoured hundreds of pages of reports on global forcing and sea level change modeling for a ten page briefing paper), the question of sea level rise appeared settled. But it quickly became clear the engineer offered real, substantive concerns regarding the data offered and the likely consequences of the climate change adaptation policy. Rather than attempt to refute and argue, I drew him out and requested he elaborate on his concerns. In the end I learned quite a bit about how he approached a policy decision from the point of view of someone who had to implement it.
His first point, one I’d heard before, asked the essential question, “what is the point of raising the bridge if the next three miles of the road will be submerged when it floods or as sea level rises?” The answer wasn’t explicit in the policy documents because the staff had concluded that this was a decision best made on a case by case basis for each bridge rather than arbitrarily raising each bridge. But the internal decision-making process for each bridge remains a complicated beast with substantial political ramifications because each project added to the Consolidated Transportation Program comes at the cost of another.
The process for bridge replacement works as follows. A bridge is scheduled for replacement when the regular evaluations by the DOT determine that the bridge has become structurally deficient and functionally obsolete (not the same thing as being unsafe). In this case, the roadway adjacent to the bridge will also be undergoing minor improvements (grinding and repaving). But no plans are in place to raise miles of roadbed across the relatively flat section of the State because no pressing needs to increase capacity or address safety exist in the same way the bridge presents as a needed infrastructure upgrade. Even if those needs existed, the DOT would have to weigh them against a host of other valuable (and politically important) projects across the State, before committing to a multi-year planning corridor planning study. So, while the road may flood regularly at some future point, the bridge requires replacement now for reasons other than rising sea level.
His next series of points related to the design of the bridge. If he assumes sea level rise is going to occur and the design needs to account for that, then what data can he depend upon for his modeling efforts. Historic stream flows depend upon monitoring gauges across the watershed and those are limited in number with specific issues related to reliability. The forecasts show a trend towards more frequent and intense rainfall but that leaves quite a lot of unknowns such as how fast will the sea level rise, how much will it rise, and the impacts be to the land adjacent to the structure as the water table rises.
Perhaps the most important unknown from his point of view was what the 100 year storm will look like as the climate warms. The amount of run-off from the storm will increase as the sea creeps higher and the groundwater level rises (essentially saturating the soil) while the total amount of rain increases. This leads to flashier stream flows, more erosion and scour around the bridge piers, and the possibility that too low a bridge will act as a dam. This could cause the road to wash out on either side of the bridge or spread flood waters out into developed areas. To avoid these problems requires a larger bridge with more environmental impacts because in this case there was to be a 2:1 slope from the center of the structure to the roadway thus lengthening the bridge. Increasing the height also widens the bridge as larger retaining walls are required and all of this construction would be occurring in an environmentally sensitive wetland area. Getting to brass tacks, this adds substantially to the cost of the project.
One answer to the bridge by bridge issue could be a benefit-cost analysis. The DOT can, with reasonable accuracy, predict the costs of a single bridge replacement. The benefits side of the equation present a trickier problem as many of these don’t come at the front end as the costs do. In fact, some benefits might require twenty years to appear (say the bridge holds in the face of one or more hurricanes instead of failing) and allows a critical emergency evacuation route to remain open. What are the dollar values for that or of being able more quickly rebuild houses and businesses on the other side of the stream? I think the argument must be made that unless otherwise directed the DOT’s responsibility is to provide safe roadways and improve access to community resources for all users. In this case that means build the bridge.
The real question, the one causing State DOT heartburn, is how to handle the political firefight needed to propose an eventual abandonment of the road as sea level climbs. Any substantial infrastructure investment in the roadway (say a new bridge) creates a moral hazard for the agency (and by extension the State), as this offers the public an expectation that this road will continue to exist and be maintained. As a result, not only do existing businesses and residents plan for a future that includes access to their investment via a State road, other development may come to the vicinity with similar expectations. In point of fact, stimulating economic growth (supportive of local land use planning efforts) is often seen as a primary function for transportation projects. This presents a sticky wicket for any State DOT as they have exactly zero ability to substantively influence land use planning when elected officials select alternatives that offer benefits within their term of office but ignore larger costs occurring later .