WH Infrastructure Plan Could Have a Costly Maintenance Bill

Source: CDC Flood Safety Awareness

President Trump’s Infrastructure plan, promoted as providing the American public with 21st century roads, railways, airports, and drinking water facilities, utterly fails to ensure that such infrastructure is built for a 21st century climate.

The plan calls for a significant investment of federal, state, and local tax dollars in infrastructure projects nationwide. As the climate changes, those projects will be increasingly vulnerable to sea level rise, more extreme weather, and bigger and more dangerous floods.  However, the plan is completely silent on making those infrastructure investments safer and stronger in the face of such risks. By not accounting for such climatic changes, billions of taxpayer dollars will likely be spent on projects that are built in the wrong place and designed for a climate of the wrong time.  

Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s turn-a-blind-eye approach towards safeguarding the nation’s infrastructure from more extreme weather is the norm.  Last August, President Trump revoked the Federal Flood Protection Standard, which, if left in place, would have required all new federal taxpayer funded infrastructure to be built with a higher margin of safety against flooding and sea level rise.  The Trump administration had promised it was working on a replacement, but that has yet to materialize. (The recent HUD allocation only affects infrastructure damaged by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria). Instead, the Trump administration’s infrastructure plan would railroad through projects without regard to the environment.  This deficiency is short-sighted, and one that sets the American taxpayer up to foot costly maintenance bills for a very long time.

Sea Level Rise, Major Floods, and More Extreme Weather

The 2017 hurricane season was a stark reminder of the massive economic damage that can be wrought by extreme weather. Projections put the economic impact at $206 billion, which will largely fall to the federal government. For example, Congress has approprieated more than $40 billion to FEMA alone, the bulk of which will be spent on repairing damages to public buildings and infrastructure

While 2017’s devastating hurricanes may have been unusual, they may be less so as the climate changes. The disaster costs borne by the federal may also become the norm, unless we start thinking differently.

In just over a decade. the federal government spent hundreds of billions of dollars responding to extreme weather disasters. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency distributed approximately $51 billion in public assistance grants between 2005 and May 2017 for flood-related disasters. And this number represents only a fraction of the money the federal government spends to help the nation recovery after major natural disaster events. Between 2005 and 2014, the federal government obligated at least $236.7 billion on disaster assistance through various programs.  When the federal share of the 2017 hurricane season bill is finally tallied, this figure will be much higher.

Unfortunately, the human and economic consequences of such disasters become even more alarming when one realizes that the frequency and severity of major flood events are projected to increase. As sea levels rise and heavy rains storms become more common, coastal areas and river communities can expect increasing vulnerability to flooding.

By 2100, global mean sea level may rise as high as 6.6 feet. Even two feet of sea level rise will have serious ramifications, endangering more than 5,790 square miles of coastline and more than $1 trillion of current property and structures.

Sea level rise and an increase in heavy rain events are projected to continue for the foreseeable future. These climatic changes will have significant impacts on the reliability and operability of the nation’s infrastructure, with potential corresponding disruptions to the US economy. However, these climate impacts can be reduced through smart planning and adaptive actions.

Unfortunately, President Trump’s Infrastructure Plan fails to promote either.

Infrastructure Investment Must Account for Future Climate Impacts

Public infrastructure investments, which do not account for climate impacts, will waste American dollars.  A 2017 report by the Environmental Protection Agency stated that by the end of the century the annual economic damages from climate change, including impacts to the nation’s infrastructure, will likely be high.  For example, the report highlights that damages to roads and railways alone could reach as high as $25 billion per year by 2100.  However, the report found that preparing the nation’s infrastructure for future climate risks can eliminate a large portion of climate change’s economic impacts, and in fact, adaptation measures implemented before disaster strikes are typically more cost-effective in reducing damages than responding after the fact.

Therefore, any infrastructure plan that is meant to launch the United States into the 21st century as a competitive, economic powerhouse must account for climate impacts. New projects should be built to accommodate for future weather scenarios, like more extreme flooding. Responsible management of taxpayer dollars and just plain old commonsense should dictate such action. That’s why the White House plan’s complete silence on ensuring new infrastructure is resilient, safe, and sustainable in the face of rising seas and more extreme weather stands out loudly amongst all the problems with this plan.

However, the Trump administration’s purposefully blindness to the obvious should not be surprising. It follows a deliberate attempt to undercut or terminate policies, like the Federal Flood Protection Standard, that were enacted to better protect the nation’s public infrastructure, and thus, reduce wasting taxpayer dollars on repairing such infrastructure after every major storm or flood. If President Trump is serious about “giv[ing] Americans the working, modern infrastructure they deserve,” then his administration should, at a minimum, take action to ensure that infrastructure lasts as long as intended.  

About the Authors

Joel Scata

Water and Climate Attorney, Water Initiatives, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.