Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) West Coast Adaptation Peer Exchange

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) West Coast Climate Change Adaptation Peer Exchange gave transportation officials from western states an opportunity to learn more about climate impacts on transportation assets and plan for improved resilience. The participants in the exchange, California DOT (Caltrans), Oregon DOT (ODOT), and Washington State DOT (WSDOT), collaborated on strategies for assessing risks related to climate change, incorporating adaptation into asset management and operations, and communicating about the need for adaptation.

This conversation resulted in the identification of a number of best practices and recommendations for next steps. The workshop participants identified six best practices that may be helpful to other transportation agencies facing similar challenges in adapting their assets and programs to the impacts of climate change:

  • Strong leadership is critical: State legislatures and governors on the West Coast have identified adapting to climate impacts as a priority for state transportation agencies. Directives from political leadership relieve the agencies of the need to justify the importance of addressing vulnerabilities to climate impacts to stakeholders. 
  • Agencies need technical guidance: Participants noted the importance of state-level direction in identifying data sources to use, climate scenarios to consider, and policies to adopt. For example, Washington mandated that agencies use climate data provided by the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. Similarly, the state of California developed statewide sea-level rise projections for use by agencies planning for climate impacts. In addition to taking direction from above, state agencies can provide similar guidance to regional and municipal planners. For example, Caltrans released Guidance on Incorporating Sea Level Rise in 2011 for use by project level staff, and guidance for MPOs on incorporating adaptation into regional transportation plans in 2013. 
  • Frame resilience as a co-benefit: Increasing resilience to climate impacts is often one of several benefits achieved by any given project. Identifying climate resilience as one of many benefits makes it easier to communicate the value of these projects to stakeholders and the public. For example, WSDOT is installing bigger culverts both to increase the system’s capacity to handle future stream flows and to improve fish passage.
  • Consistent communication is key: In large agencies, it can often be difficult to coordinate communication messages and agency priorities. Caltrans noted the importance of ensuring that relevant climate change adaptation information is directed to staff across disciplines and offices. 
  • Engage stakeholders: Stakeholder engagement is critical but must be conducted in a manner appropriate to the agency context and objectives. It is often best to begin outreach efforts by engaging with internal staff, particularly personnel with technical expertise and project experience. ODOT conducted an adaptation workshop with engineers and technical services staff to gather institutional knowledge and foster ownership of the vulnerability assessment process within the agency. In a similar fashion, WSDOT began its vulnerability assessment process by interviewing on-the-ground personnel.
  • Integrate resilience into a sustainability framework: Transportation agencies are often already engaged in efforts to promote sustainability. Workshop participants suggested incorporating resilience to climate impacts into those existing efforts rather than creating a new program or initiative. Participants also reported success in communicating that reducing vulnerability to climate impacts is simply a part of good business practice. 

In addition to identifying best practices, the workshop participants also made recommendations for next steps FHWA and/or other state or federal agencies can take to promote climate adaptation in the transportation sector:

  • Provide guidance on moving from assessment to action: Vulnerability and risk assessments are essential first steps in identifying vulnerabilities to climate impacts. However, state agencies and others need additional guidance on how to move from identifying vulnerabilities to implementing adaptation actions. 
  • Provide guidance on integrating adaptation into project management: Reducing the vulnerability of transportation assets and programs to climate impacts requires integrating adaptation into project planning, programming, and design. Project participants suggested that there is no existing guidance that addresses adaptation across this continuum. 
  • Provide information on adaptation options: Agencies need information in order to evaluate and compare adaptation strategies. Participants called for additional information about the cost and efficacy of adaptation options. In particular, information is needed in order to justify the adaptation of three categories of projects: (1) high-cost, long-lived infrastructure, (2) long-term programs with a high cost of failure, and (3) high-value programs with a high cost of failure. In each case, adaptation measures are justified when the cost of adaptation is less than the cost of damage or service interruption from climate impacts.

The climate change adaptation peer exchange titled “Integrating Climate Change Adaptation into Agency Programs, Projects, and Operations” was hosted by FHWA on June 13 and 14, 2011, in Oakland, California. The goal of the workshop was to allow DOTs from these states to collaborate and continue their leadership in adapting transportation systems to the impact of climate change. The workshop included presentations and facilitated discussion how to conduct vulnerability and risk assessments, integrate adaptation into highway assets and operations, and communicate the need for adaptation. Participants included eight representatives from Caltrans, five from ODOT, five from WSDOT, one from the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, six FHWA headquarters and state staff, and three experts from ICF International.


This Adaptation Clearinghouse entry was prepared with support from the Federal Highway Administration. This entry was last updated on February 6, 2015.


Publication Date: June 13, 2011

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