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Transportation Troubleshooting: Helping Transportation Agencies Overcome Rising Threat of Heat Waves

Paula Hammond on September 29, 2022 - in Articles, Column

When I look at the challenge of making America’s transportation infrastructure more sustainable, climate-friendly and resilient to the weather extremes becoming more problematic with climate change, I find hope in how fast the policy landscape is changing. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), also known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, exemplifies this change.

Supported by more than two-thirds of the U.S. Senate, the BIL embraces sustainability, greenhouse gas mitigation and climate resiliency with more ambition and funding than any federal bill I’ve seen throughout my 43 years in transportation. The BIL’s SMART and PROTECT grant programs will fund resiliency upgrades to existing transportation systems as well as the planning and building of resilient infrastructure for the future.

As my WSP colleague Michael Flood, U.S. resilience practice leader, said recently: “These new programs will allow state and local transportation agencies to more completely address concerns like rainfall flooding, storm surge or stormwater runoff as well as other natural impacts to infrastructure that road users must face.”

The law also creates a national Center of Excellence for Resilience and Adaptation for transportation and related infrastructure to be led by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials as well as 10 regional centers. These centers will serve as a resource for transportation agencies, advancing the science of climate-vulnerability assessments as well as evaluating new and emerging practices for resilient transportation design and construction through maintenance and operations.

A Hot New World

Civil and structural engineers have begun designing roadways and other infrastructure for future climate conditions, instead of using the historical conditions that previously guided our work. Outside of its physical effects on infrastructure, heat is most often expressed as a concern for the comfort of transportation system users, such as when transit riders are unprotected from the elements and require action to provide shelter or shade.

But the headlines from summer 2022—runways, railroads and highways in Europe and the UK rendered unsafe by record-breaking heat—remind us that of all climate extremes, heat waves pose exceptionally tough challenges for transportation infrastructure.

The BIL will help transportation agencies prepare for future heat waves in several ways, including a Healthy Streets program to fund cool and porous pavements, expanded tree cover and other measures to mitigate urban heat islands.

The BIL addresses more than transportation, of course. Its $47.2 billion in resiliency funding also will be used by local and state governments to mitigate flood and wildfire risks, improve coastal resiliency, manage drought and heat stress, and weatherize the homes of more low-income families. Another $10 billion will support hardening electric grids against wildfires and other natural disasters as well as research and development on enhancing regional grid resilience.

Going Electric

When we talk about transportation and climate change, however, we must not ignore the elephant in the room: our current transportation infrastructure and the cars, trucks, trains, ships and planes that use it produce 27 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—more than any other sector.

Transitioning from our current fossil-fuel-dependent transportation modes will be a decades-long process. At WSP, we’re confident that electrification will be the primary strategy for this transformation. While hydrogen will play a role in marine shipping and other modes for which electrification is unsuitable, electrification will dominate because it leverages existing electric utility infrastructure.

My colleagues and I have helped dozens of transit agencies plan for and implement transitions from diesel or compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles to electric ones. This transition is happening fastest in California, where transit agencies must cease purchasing diesel and CNG buses by 2026 or 2030, depending on the agency’s size.

“We foresee electrification expanding rapidly in all types of government fleets, and we’re pleased to see the executive branch leading with a mandate to make all federal light-duty vehicle purchases electric by 2027 and all vehicles by 2035,” said my colleague Dana Lowell, WSP zero emission senior technical advisor and director of WSP’s Center for Clean Transportation.

In the BIL, Congress also backed transit electrification by increasing the annual funding for the Federal Transit Administration’s Low or No Vehicle Emissions Competitive Program from $55 million to $1.1 billion annually.

Although there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how quickly electric drivetrains will displace internal-combustion engines in the light-duty vehicle market overall, investments by major automakers during the last two to five years show a massive change is underway.

“Every quarter, global auto manufacturers are announcing new electric vehicle targets, new models and new capital investments,” said Lowell. “While the market is still overly skewed to high-end sedans, we see that changing with more electric SUVs and pickup trucks from Ford and others.” In addition, the BIL will support the growth of EV markets by devoting $1 billion annually for five years to developing public fast-charging stations in all states.

We have a long way to go to make the country’s transportation infrastructure both climate-friendly and climate-resilient. The BIL makes a valuable down payment on the costs of this epic venture, and much more will be required in the coming decades. 

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About Paula Hammond

Paula Hammond is senior vice president and national multimodal market leader, WSP USA; email: [email protected].

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