Adapting Vermont’s Transportation Infrastructure to the Future Impacts of Climate Change

This white paper was released on August 13, 2012 by the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans). The purpose of the white paper was to identify adaptation efforts underway at VTrans, identify constraints on the agency’s adaptation efforts, and analyze potential future actions the agency could take.  

The white paper does not go into depth cataloging the scientific projections of climate change for the region. Instead, it cites the observed change in Northeastern temperature from 1970 to 2000 (a 0.5° F per decade increase and a winter temperature increase of 1.3° F per decade), and notes that these changes are strongly correlated with shifting seasonal transitions, increases in high spring streamflow, decreasing seasonal snow depths, and an increasing number of days above 90° F.

It also discusses the significance of two flood events that occurred 3 months apart in 2011. Substantial snowmelt combined with record-breaking spring rainfall raised Lake Champlain 3.3 feet above flood stage and causing $6 million in damage to transportation infrastructure. Debris and landslides blocked shipping lanes, ferry docks were inundated, and wave erosion damaged several roadways. Then, three months later Tropical Storm Irene caused an estimated $175 million - $250 million in damage to the state highway system, including damage to more than 500 miles of road and 200 bridges. The state rail system also sustained damage to over 200 miles of track and 6 bridges, totaling an estimated $21.5 million in damage.

The white paper identifies a set of key objectives for VTrans’s adaptation policy:  excellence and innovation in project development and customer service; safety through the development of contingency plans, public education, use of technology, and increased inspections of infrastructure; better planning applying cost-benefit analysis and increasing the adaptive capacity of stakeholders to quickly implement plans; environmental stewardship to ensure the protection of essential ecosystem functions from climate risk and the avoidance of ecological damage during recovery efforts; and preservation of the state’s investments in its transportation system.

The paper then discusses constraints on adaptation. The primary constraint identified is funding – the state is struggling to maintain its current operations with its existing revenue streams and lacks resources for dedicated spending on adaptation. The paper proposes that adaptation efforts and best practices be incorporated into reinvestments – such as rehabilitation and maintenance activities. The second constraint is regulatory. As an example the paper discusses barriers with disaster relief funding provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which can limit the ability of states to upgrade damaged structures beyond state codes and standards. The controversy over FEMA reimbursements for culverts in Vermont after Irene is discussed in detail in another case study. Outdated flood maps associated with the National Flood Insurance Program are also described as an impediment. The section also briefly reviews scientific uncertainties, and economic and political barriers to adaptation.

The next section covers a number of ongoing VTrans adaptation projects:

  • LiDAR mapping - VTrans, with municipalities, is using LiDAR to map transportation and river corridors to provide more detailed topographical data and increase the precision of flood models.  This data will be used to update FEMA’s 100-year flood maps.
  • State asset management - Vtrans is also participating in an effort to collect information on the condition and performance of state-owned bridges, culverts, and pavements and developing improved deterioration models as part of the state asset management process.
  • Flood resilience training - The agency is creating training programs for its staff, regional partners, contractors, and consultants on best management practices, river dynamics and geomorphology, and flood impacts on infrastructure.
  • Transportation Resilience Plan - Vtrans is developing methods to identify infrastructure that is vulnerable to flooding and erosion. The tools developed will be used to develop a plan that will ascribe quantitative risk to particular assets and prioritize investments in facilities that have a high risk of failure.  
  • Rapid culvert sizing - In the aftermath of Irene, VTrans developed computerized process for determining culvert specification based upon site specific and hydrological data. The tool cut down the analysis time down from 15-20 hours to 2-3 hours allowing for expedited recovery in the aftermath of emergencies.  
  • Resilient Vermont Project - Vtrans is convening a range of stakeholders to compile an inventory of adaptation activities, create a definition of “resilience” specific to Vermont, and enable prioritization of resilience measures.

The paper concludes with a discussion of future adaptation policies and projects that VTrans could undertake:

  • Data collection, monitoring, and standardization - including to:

- Compile data on repeat damage and insufficient design standards from Project Worksheets and Detailed Damage Inspection Reports required for FEMA disaster relief funding.

- Identify “climate related thresholds” that could increase the deterioration of infrastructure such as temperature thresholds, the frequency of freeze-thaw events, the frequency of severe storms, changes in the design flood values, and the failure rate of certain structure designs.  

- Expand the state’s asset inventory to allow VTrans to better identify “weak links in the network” to allow for preemptive changes, and support local asset inventories.

- Create analytic tools that allow for real-time monitoring of flooding, allow for identification of vulnerabilities through GIS tools compiling meteorological, topographical and asset data.

- Update prioritization system to allow VTrans to direct resources based upon cost and risk.

- Revise hydraulics manual to incorporate best practices for address to rapid changes in precipitation, changes in watershed and development characteristics.

  • Increase adaptive capacity by facilitating cross-agency and multi-disciplinary collaborations, asking questions, filling data gaps, continuing to innovate, and transitioning to a preemptive, rather than reactive, response. 
  • Apply a decision-making framework that allows for flexibility and decision-making in the face of scientific uncertainty.

 

This Adaptation Clearinghouse entry was prepared with support from the Federal Highway Administration. This entry was last updated on January 8, 2015.

 

Publication Date: August 13, 2012

Related Organizations:

  • Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans)

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Resource Types:

  • Policy analysis/recommendations
  • Progress report

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