Houston-Galveston Area Council Foresight Panel on Environmental Effects Report – Transportation Recommendations

The Houston-Galveston Area Council Foresight Panel on Environmental Effects (the Panel) published a 2008 report informing local governments in the region of possible effects of climate change on their transportation infrastructure and recommending how to best reduce the risk of those impacts. The Panel synthesized climate change effects in the region including sea-level rise, increases in temperature, and more frequent and intense storm events interspersed with periods of drought. The report looks at impacts across both the built and natural environments, but this case study focuses solely on the recommendations that apply to transportation infrastructure. Recommendations for reducing the risk to the transportation sector include using green infrastructure to manage stormwater and sea-level rise, developing heat wave management plans to protect outdoor workers, and using lighter-colored pavements to reduce pavement deterioration.

The effects of climate change will pose significant challenges for transportation infrastructure in the Houston-Galveston area. Public roads will face faster deterioration caused by increased temperatures, sea-level rise, and increased rainfall, and will require more frequent maintenance. Roadways face greater risks of buckling, and from bridge scour and stormwater overflows. Railways are at greater risk of buckling and derailment due to extreme heat. Construction and maintenance of transportation infrastructure will face delays due to more frequent flooding and extreme heat events. Storm surges may temporarily inundate transportation facilities while sea-level rise may lead to permanent closures.

The report includes several recommendations for adapting transportation infrastructure to the potential effects of climate change. First, the Panel recommends utilizing low impact development techniques, such as urban greening and green roofs, to manage stormwater. Improved stormwater management will help minimize the risk of damage to transportation infrastructure caused by storm surge and increased precipitation. These techniques would have the added benefit of reducing the urban heat island effect, providing open space for communities, and reducing building cooling costs. The report also recommends use of alternative, lighter-colored pavements. Higher pavement temperatures cause faster road deterioration, requiring frequent maintenance. Lighter-colored pavements reduce pavement temperatures by reflecting more light than traditional pavements and will reduce the heat island effect and ultimately decrease required road maintenance.

It is also recommended that governments develop heat wave management plans to protect equipment and outdoor workers, including transportation workers, from the dangers posed by extreme heat events. The Panel suggests altering maintenance schedules to cooler parts of the day and increasing workers’ access to cool public buildings.

The Panel recommends that planners consider alternate methods of transportation. Planning for the future must consider the potential effects of climate change to ensure that projects will be feasible over the long-term. The report gives the example that, due to sea-level rise, elevating light rails may be a more cost-effective option for the future than expanding a roadway. Planners will also need to consider alternatives to truck delivery as the primary method of distributing goods.

It is recommended that transportation planners take a longer-term view for infrastructure planning. Instead of the traditional 5-year plan, considering the effects of infrastructure planning over the next 50 to 100 years is suggested. Planners should consider in its infrastructure decision-making possible increased costs of maintenance, preservation, and rehabilitation as well as changes in design standards that may be required as a result of climate change.

Before implementing these general recommendations, the Panel recommends that local governments take steps to adapt the strategies to their local circumstances. First, local governments should conduct vulnerability assessments to determine the infrastructure most susceptible to climate change impacts. Next, the government should weigh costs and benefits and prioritize the importance of each vulnerable asset, considering the costs of adaptive measures and the adverse effects of the asset’s failure. Finally, the local government should develop implementation phasing strategies. Pushing some capital costs into the future can reduce the immediate financial impact and spread the cost of adaptation over time. To develop their recommendations, the Panel relied upon the US Department of Transportation’s Gulf Coast Study, Phase 1 predicting climate change effects for the region, which relied on IPCC estimates. By 2100, the Panel expects an increase in average annual temperature of 2-7 degrees Fahrenheit, sea-level rise of 2-5 feet, and more frequent, more intense extreme weather events. The Council predicts similar annual precipitation but more intense storm events combined with longer periods of drought in between.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council is a voluntary regional association of cities and counties in the greater Houston area that provides a venue for local governments to respond to regional challenges. There are thirteen counties in the Council’s service area including: Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Matagorda, Montgomery, Walker, Waller and Wharton. The purpose of the Foresight Panel on Environmental Effects was to recommend strategies for local governments to adapt to potential effects of climate change.  

This Adaptation Clearinghouse entry was prepared with support from the Federal Highway Administration. This entry was last updated on January 29, 2015.


Publication Date: December 16, 2008

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  • Houston-Galveston Area Council


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  • Policy analysis/recommendations

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