Energy & Environment

Proper infrastructure investment must account for climate change

Getty Images

President Donald Trump ran his campaign on promises of complete overhaul, including the promise to “drain the swamp” that is Washington, D.C. 

Though he spoke metaphorically, this first-time District resident will soon discover that parts of Washington’s present-day drainage system date from at least the Civil War.  

{mosads}Water infrastructure are prime candidates for the president’s proposed trillion-dollar investment in America’s “crumbling” infrastructure.

The longevity of D.C.’s sewers is, by any measure, a success story, having lasted far beyond the service life of most physical infrastructure, which lasts anywhere from 50 to 100 years.

But we can’t expect nearly the same longevity from our infrastructure investments going forward unless we start designing and building with resilience in mind.  That means designing and constructing our infrastructure so that they can adapt to changing conditions and recover rapidly from disruptions caused by extreme weather.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which famously gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ grade in 2013, argues that our future infrastructure will last its normal service life only if we account for the projected impacts of climate change.

When we design and build infrastructure, in other words, we have to factor in future risk. This means accounting for the heavier downpours, extreme heat, and rising sea levels that already threaten our infrastructure and will only intensify in the coming years.

As the ASCE and the Government Accountability Office, the federal government’s watchdog, have warned, we are not yet designing infrastructure to handle future climate events. In fact, because our designs do not adequately consider future risk, we have made some costly mistakes.

Take South Ferry subway station in lower Manhattan, originally opened by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in 1905. More than a hundred years later, in 2009, the MTA opened a new South Ferry station at a cost of some $545 million only to shut it down in less than three years. 

The 2009 design anticipated a storm surge far lower than the close to 14-foot wallop Superstorm Sandy inflicted. The station flooded from floor to ceiling, creating a “fish tank,” according to the MTA’s Chairman.

By the time the station reopens, it will have cost taxpayers at least another $500 million. In the future, predictions suggest, New York City may have to contend with Sandy-like storms every 25 years.

Consider, too, the Norfolk and Hampton Roads area in Virginia, home to the largest naval station in the world. The area plays a crucial role in American national security.

All of our military branches and the Coast Guard have facilities there, 29 in all. The land underneath is sinking — and the seas around it rising — at some of the highest rates in the U.S.

In the last 50 years, the number of days of “nuisance flooding” — flooding that can keep people from getting to work on the military base, for example — has grown from an average of 1.6 days in 1960 to 7.3 days in 2014.  

The region needs major infrastructure investment to address the increased flooding. According to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the area may see over five additional feet of sea level rise by the end of this century.

Yet in 2011, Norfolk opened a light rail system built in large part at sea level and costing $318 million in mostly federal funds. Coastal flooding has already caused the rail to shut down on several occasions and the system is permanently at risk of being washed away.

In the last ten years, the federal government has spent over $320 billion to repair federal facilities and infrastructure from damage caused by extreme weather. The bottom line is that building resiliently is, at minimum, the fiscally prudent thing to do.

According to a recent World Bank study, the added cost of building infrastructure resilient to a changing environment pays off in the long run if done correctly.

When disasters do happen, like another Superstorm Sandy, every $1 dollar we have spent on building resiliently will save us $4 in damages, says the Multihazard Mitigation Council.

Before Congress spends a single dollar of taxpayer money on infrastructure, they should require that those investments account for future risk including the projected impacts of climate change.

If we fail to account for future risk, all that shiny new infrastructure may crumble even before the paint has a chance to dry. 


Alice Hill is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution where she focuses on building resilience to the destabilizing impacts of climate change.

Craig Fugate served as President Barack Obama’s FEMA Administrator since 2009.  Previously, he served as Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s Emergency Management Director from 2001-2009.  


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Barack Obama Climate change Donald Trump Flood Hurricane Sandy Infrastructure Natural Disaster sea level rise

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video