Climate change is adding a premium to infrastructure costs

Andrea Bernstein Dec 7, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: We’re well clear of hurricane season, but New York area commuters are still recovering from Tropical Storm Irene, which hit more than three months ago. The storm washed away miles of train track north of the city. It’s being rebuilt, of course, at no small cost — but with a climate change premium added on.

Andrea Bernstein reports from the Transportation Nation project at WYNC.

Andrea Bernstein: It’s been a busy fall for construction workers on the Port Jervis commuter rail line. The track takes passengers from New York City to points north and west. On Aug. 27, Tropical Storm Irene roared through, adding buckets of rain to what had already been the wettest August on record. Fourteen miles of the Port Jervis line were washed out.

Fred Chidester: In over 28 and a half years, I have not ever seen anything to this magnitude on any of our lines.

Fred Chidester manages the Port Jervis line for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Irene twisted the tracks like chewing gum and left waves of mangled steel.

Chidester: And the type of damage that was done is just unthinkable.

Fixing the tracks is costing $30 million. Part of that cost — about 10 percent — comes from special fortifications and drainage pipes that can handle future onslaughts of water. Chidester says his agency had no choice but to eat the added cost.

Chidester: Our hundred-year storms seem to be happening every 3 years now.

Extreme weather has been adding costs to transit projects across the country. Last year, Nashville had to replace dozens of its city buses after its main depot flooded. Washington D.C. and Boston had to swap out train tracks buckled by extreme heat. The Federal Transit Administration is advising transit agencies to get ready for more rain, more snow, more heat.

Therese McMillan: And to not address it would be a naive response to the fact that there’s millions of dollars on the ground.

Therese McMillan is the Deputy FTA administrator. She says transit agencies need to invest in shoring up vital transportation networks now or pay a higher price later.

MacMillan: So whatever arguments folks want to have about the sources of the impacts, we’re seeing impacts.

But adapting to climate change can mean a trade off for transit agencies: the more money you spend reinforcing infrastructure, the less you have to transport the public. Take New York’s MTA. On one hand, the agency faces a $10 billion gap in its capital budget. It’s had to cut train and bus service to make ends meet. At the same time, it’s having to spend millions on adaptation projects like raising street vents so subway lines don’t flood.

Projjol Dutta is in charge of the MTA’s climate adaptation planning. He says for the planet’s sake, now is no time to be cutting measures to get people out of their cars.

Projjol Dutta: If there were more public transportation there would be less greenhouse gas emissions. It is ironical therefore that in order to fight this greenhouse gas problem, resources have to be diverted from the regular running of a system. That’s a real tragedy.

But even advocates of public transportation concede the MTA has to divert resources to adaptation projects. New York’s economy generates $4 billion a day. If the city’s transportation system stops, so does the economy.

Columbia University scientist Klaus Jacob says intense storms coupled with sea level rise could put the subway system underwater by the end of this century.

Klaus Jacob: There will be a bitter awakening what climate change really will cost.

Unless, he says, transit officials agree to spend billions in the short-run.

In New York, I’m Andrea Bernstein for Marketplace.

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