Storm surges and rising sea level a growing concern
By Angel Streeter, Sun Sentinel April 18, 2013
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In late October, Hurricane Sandy washed out a portion of State Road A1A in Fort Lauderdale. And in Miami Beach, seasonal high tides regularly deluge Alton Road.
South Florida transportation planners think these examples are just the beginning of the impact that rising sea levels, strong storm surges and flooding will have on the region’s transportation infrastructure.
“It’s going to happen more often,” said Roger Del Rio, a project coordinator with the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization.
To prepare, they’re urgently moving to see which roads, highways, railroads and other parts of the transportation system are vulnerable to climate change. And, for the first time, they’re looking at factoring in climate change when determining future transportation projects.
It’s being done as part of a $642,000 tri-county pilot project with some of the funding coming from a $300,000 federal grant.
The collaborative effort includes Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward transportation planners, the Florida Department of Transportation and the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which runs Tri-Rail.
The project is a spinoff of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, which took a look at climate change on a regional level. As part of its work, it did a preliminary assessment of potentially how vulnerable the region’s transportation system is to rising sea levels.
That initial assessment showed that 81 miles of roadway from Miami-Dade County to Palm Beach could be inundated if the sea level rose 1 foot. That increased to 893 miles if the sea level rose 3 feet.
In Broward County, about 9.5 miles of roadway could be affected by a 1-foot sea level rise, about 76.4 miles at 2 feet and about 295.8 miles at 3 feet.
The Regional Compact projected sea level will rise 3 to 7 inches by 2030 and 9 to 24 inches by 2060. That makes it seem like the problem is in the distant future, but recent events show the area is feeling the impact now, say regional planners.
“We’re going through weather cycles reflective of what we would expect when climate change progresses,” said Nancy Gassman, with Broward County’s environmental protection and growth management department.
Drought, excessive amounts of precipitation and extreme high tides are occurring more often.
“Our vulnerability is now and in the future,” she said. “We need to include climate change into local and regional planning documents to improve the resilience of our coast and our communities.”
So the pilot project — beginning this summer — will dig deeper to see not only which roads, bridges and airports are at risk from sea-level rise, storm surges and flooding, but also what can be done to protect them.
“Should we continue to rip out and repair [vulnerable infrastructure]? Or should we not rebuild at all and build somewhere else?” Del Rio said.
This effort to make climate change a factor in transportation planning is also about protecting taxpayers’ investment in roads and bridges.
“With the infrastructure being impacted by storms and higher tides, the infrastructure gets compromised over time,” said Debbie Griner, Miami-Dade County’s environmental resources project supervisor.
So developing new design standards for upcoming projects is essential, she said. For instance, engineers designing a bridge to last 70 years should consider not only a 100-year storm but also rising sea levels during the life span of the bridge.
Protecting infrastructure isn’t the only way planners are preparing for climate change. In the Regional Climate Change Compact, engineers placed much focus on providing ways to get around other than by car to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Most of South Florida’s greenhouse gases are generated because the region’s sprawling development has created a heavy dependence on automobiles.
To counter that, the region needs to improve public transportation options, create development near mass transit and make communities more walkable, Griner said.
“This [thinking] is the new normal,” she said.