OP-ED: How Will Climate Change Impact Transportation in Massachusetts?

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The following piece was submitted by State Sen. Will Brownsberger (D – Belmont) who represents Watertown:

I spent Wednesday morning at a Rappapport Institute forum on climate change and transportation infrastructure.

When I think about the local impacts of climate change, what I worry about most is water — flooding due to sea level rise. Increased precipitation is also an issue, but for the coastal region that I represent, the big issue is sea level rise.

The areas I serve are sheltered from direct coastal flooding and do not face immediate inundation risks, but every legislator has to be concerned about the vulnerabilities of the transportation system that the region depends on.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has lead the region’s efforts to understand climate change — making the initial investment in the Boston Harbor Flood Risk Model to better understand the risks to the central artery and harbor tunnels. The BH-FRM has been the foundation of much the other modeling done by other agencies over the past few years.

At the forum, I was very pleased to see evidence of a continuing high level of attention to flooding issues on the part of the transportation leadership of the state. Steve Poftak, who is the executive director of Rappaport Institute, organized the forum. He also serves on the board of the MassDOT and on the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board. Monica Tibbets Nutt, another member of both the MassDOT board and the FMCB, led one of the panels. Also participating actively in the conversation was Steve Kadish who is chairing the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation.

Samantha Silverberg, Senior Director for Capital Planning at the MBTA, discussed the T’s efforts. The MBTA does not yet have in place a comprehensive vulnerability assessment, but they are moving towards that piece by piece, looking at the most obvious exposures first. Areas of immediate concern include the coastally exposed Blue Line stations and Kenmore station which experienced flooding in the ’90s.

I’ve been asking for a clearer plan to get all the T’s vulnerability identified, but I certainly heard the right ideas in Ms. Silverberg’s presentation. She acknowledged the many dimensions of climate vulnerability, but emphasized flood risks. She talked about making sure that every project was designed with resiliency in mind.  Jennifer Sullivan, the Assistant Secretary for Capital Finance for the state as whole, echoed many of the same thoughts.

Steve Miller, who heads resiliency planning for MassDOT talked about efforts to extend the Boston Harbor flood risk model to all of coastal Massachusetts.  His presentation did surface one fundamental challenge: All of the deep analysis that we might do locally depends ultimately on a hugely uncertain global future. For example, the new coastal model will use projections about sea-level rise due to polar ice melting that go a foot or two above what the BH-FRM assumed. The transportation planner from Rhode Island indicated that they were using assumptions that were an additional foot or two more pessimistic. These differences matter in the flat coastal plain that includes Boston and its inner suburbs. The flood risks estimated for 2070 might come a decade or two sooner.

Several of the speakers recognized the need to start planning based on ranges — most engineers are used to thinking of a single water level that they need be prepared to protect against. Given the global uncertainties, we need to manage consequences in multiple scenarios. The thinking gets even more complicated as one tries to take a systems approach — if one station is flooded, does the whole system come down?  Will alternatives routes remain open? Rawlings Miller, a federal resiliency planner, described efforts to manage risk more systemically.

Overall, it was an encouraging morning — very good to see so many people in positions of responsibility for our transportation infrastructure taking the issue of sea-level rise very seriously.

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