PROTECTing Transportation Infrastructure from Climate Change

Thanks to decades of inaction by federal and state governments, our transportation system is not prepared. PROTECT is a big step forward toward resilience. States should fully devote all of these funds toward effective climate resilience projects.

Credit: Photo by jim gade on Unsplash

The U.S. Department of Transportation continues implementing the historic infrastructure law, with "major announcements every few days,” as Secretary Pete Buttigieg put it recently on Twitter. This includes big, new investments in the resilience of transportation infrastructure through programs such as PROTECT—Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-Saving Transportation. This is badly needed support for local and state agencies as they grapple with the costs and consequences of climate change: From roads melting and bridges flooding to rail lines buckling, the worsening signs surround us.


The climate crisis is posing huge challenges to the transportation system. The National Climate Assessment finds that the U.S. transportation system is threatened by sea level rise, intense precipitation and flooding, and rising temperatures. And a recent scenario-building analysis estimated that not adapting our road system to climate change would cost at least $100 billion by 2050.

 A paper by professor Michael Meyer of the Georgia Institute of Technology documents the impacts and includes this table of climate considerations for planners and engineers:

Climate-Change PhenomenonChange in Environmental ConditionDesign Implications 
Temperature changeRising maximum temperature; lower minimum temperature; wider temperature range; possible significant impact on permafrost
Over the short term (30–40 years), minimal impact on pavement or structural design; potential significant impact on road, bridge scour and culver design in cold regions.
Over the long term (40–100 years), possible significant impact on pavement and structural design; need for new materials; better maintenance strategies
Changing precipitation levelsWorse-case scenario, more precipitation; higher water tables; greater levels of flooding; higher moisture content in soils
Over the short term, could affect pavement and drainage design; greater attention to foundation decisions; more probabilistic approaches to design floods; more targeted maintenance.
Over the long term, definite impact on foundation design and design of drainage systems and culverts; design of pavement subgrade and materials impacts
Wind loadsStronger wind speeds and therefore increased loads on bridge structures; more turbulence
Over the short term, design factors for design wind speed might change; wind tunnel testing will have to consider more turbulent wind conditions.
Over the long term, greater materials strength and design conditions for suspended and cable-stayed bridges
Sea level riseRising water levels in coastal areas and rivers; increase of severe coastal floodingOver the long term, greater inundation of coastal areas; more stringent design standards for flooding and building in saturated soils; greater protection of infrastructure needed when higher sea levels combine with storm surges
Storm surges and greater wave heightLarger and more frequent storm surges; more powerful wave action
Over the short term, design changes to bridge height in vulnerable areas; more probabilistic approach to predicting storm surges.
Over the long term, design changes for bridge design, both superstructure and foundations; change in materials specifications; more protective strategies for critical components


These engineering challenges can be dealt with as individual transportation projects are being developed. However, it’s just as important to grapple with them at the system level, such as during long-range transportation planning. These are, after all, big-picture threats with huge costs, if unaddressed.

The PROTECT program—which includes a new competitive grant-making program as well as what’s called a “formula” program (with funding distributed based on formulas)—is a big step toward tackling these threats. The new guidance from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for the $7.3 billion formula program describes a set of eligible uses for this funding by state departments of transportation and metropolitan planning organizations. Specifically, grantees can use the funding for:

  • Planning activities
  • Resilience improvements
  • Community resilience and evacuation route activities
  • At-risk coastal infrastructure activities

This funding is available for traditional construction activities, including resurfacing or reconstruction of facilities. It’s also available for a range of bridge retrofitting activities like scour protection or lengthening and/or raising, which is especially important since bridges are meant to last longer than roads. Importantly, the funding can also be used for natural infrastructure features, such as planting vegetation, landscaping with dunes and berms, and installing riprap, as described by FHWA and by NRDC.

The funding can also be flexed to public transportation, which is an excellent option, given the need to make transit more resilient on a day-to-day basis, the role of public transit during and after climate-related disasters, and the role of buses and trains in fighting climate change.

The guidance also encourages the creation of optional resilience improvement plans with a preferential match. Traditionally, the federal government matches transportation investments at an 80-to-20 ratio. However, if a project is described in a resilience improvement plan, it would be funded at as much as 87-to-13, and if the plan is incorporated into a Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) and/or metropolitan Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), then the match would be as much as 90-to-10.

What should grantees have in their plans? FHWA recommends that plans include these elements “as appropriate”:

  • How the plan will improve the ability to respond to extreme weather and disasters;
  • How the plan will help prepare for changing conditions such as sea level rise;
  • What codes, standards, and regulatory frameworks have been adopted and enforced to ensure resilience improvements can be implemented;
  • A consideration of the benefits of combining hard infrastructure and natural infrastructure;
  • An assessment of the resilience of other community assets including housing, water infrastructure, and more. FHWA also recommends a long-term planning period that’s at least as long as the state’s long-range transportation plan (which spans 20-plus years), the metropolitan transportation plan, or the asset management plan.

Then, among a list of other optional ideas, FHWA recommends that grantees “describe resilience improvement policies, including strategies, land-use and zoning changes, investments in natural infrastructure, or performance measures that will inform the transportation investment decisions of the state or MPO with the goal of including resilience…”

And here’s the simple truth: Resilience improvement plans should include all of these components. They shouldn’t be optional. And they should be incorporated into STIPs and TIPs, which are the closest reflection of how transportation budgets in states and metropolitan regions will be used. That is all common sense, and superior to FHWA’s softer, optional approach.

Finally, Congress made a terrible choice when they passed the infrastructure bill: Local and state agencies can transfer up to half of their PROTECT grant money to other highway programs, such as the National Highway Performance Program and the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program. The money from PROTECT should be used exclusively for climate resilience—which has been historically underfunded, to say the least—and not go to programs that have more than $200 billion already.

Furthermore, projects funded by these other highway programs aren’t required to take future climate conditions into account. This means we could see even more highways being built in harm’s way of flooding (or that will, themselves, make flooding worse); roadways that can’t withstand future heat extremes; or other forms of maladaptation that leave communities worse off in the face of climate change than they are today.

Because climate change is here. And thanks to decades of inaction by federal and state governments, our transportation system is not prepared. PROTECT is a big step forward toward resilience. States should fully devote all of these funds toward effective climate resilience projects. Let’s get to work.

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