Rhode Island: Vulnerability of Municipal Transportation Assets to Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge

From Rhode Island’s Statewide Planning Program, Technical Paper 167: “Vulnerability of Municipal Transportation Assets to Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge” analyzes the estimated geographic extent of sea level rise in relation to transportation infrastructure in the state over the next century. The study found that sea level rise presents a major challenge to Rhode Island’s transportation infrastructure, both via daily tidal flooding of coastal assets, and in making storm surge events more severe. In addition to an overview of asset exposure and vulnerability, summaries of the results are also presented in factsheets tailored to each municipality that is vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge.

The assessment identifies the transportation assets in Rhode Island that are at risk under one, three, five and seven feet of sea level rise, and analyzes how these sea level rise scenarios would interact with a 100-year storm surge event. The analysis shows that all 21 coastal Rhode Island communities will experience impacts to their transportation infrastructure due to the rise in sea level.

Under the various sea level rise and storm surge scenarios, the study finds that every coastal city or town in Rhode Island faces the potential of seeing some road assets exposed to inundation impacts. Many of these impacts reach far inland, up tidal rivers and streams that might not seem obvious sources of vulnerability. In total 175 miles of road centerline will potentially be exposed to sea level rise, and 573 miles to storm surge. Statewide, 70% of these miles will be in the form of local roads.

The analysis shows that in Rhode Island 1.9 miles of roadway are expected to flood at high tide under one foot of sea level rise, 34 miles of roadway at three feet of sea level rise, 102 miles of roadway at five feet of sea level rise, and up to 175 miles of roadway at seven feet of sea level rise. Additionally, 81 bridges may be affected by the projected sea level rise.

The vulnerability assessment portion of this analysis found that, while the most vulnerable individual transportation assets are located in Rhode Island’s East Bay region, all coastal cities and towns will face serious challenges in coping with the effects of sea level rise and storm surge regardless of their geographic location.

This project utilized the STORMTOOLS data set from the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council - which created the opportunity to bring in information about storm surge and add an additional sea level rise scenario into the analysis.

The report closes with a general review of Adaptation Strategies and Tactics available to Rhode Island including the following approaches:

  • Protect - armor
  • Protect - enhance natural protections
  • Accommodate in place
  • Accommodate through realignment
  • Retreat
  • Do Nothing

As said in the report, “(t)urning the above strategies and tactics into a built reality requires the use of often limited resources. This is where the 100-year long planning horizon is of particular value.”

There are five general ways that decision-makers and planners can utilize these data, described in the final section Opportunities to Use Sea Level Rise Information in Decision-Making: Spending, Planning, Goal Setting, Communication and Capacity Building, and through Additional Analysis.


Publication Date: September 28, 2016

Related Organizations:

  • State of Rhode Island


Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Assessment

States Affected:


Go To Resource