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Climate Change and Infrastructure: Insidious Impacts

While Texas, Florida, California, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico were harshly reminded of a changing climate following a historically active season of hurricanes and drought-enabled wildfires, Midwestern states would do well to acknowledge that climate changes are already reaching much further inland. The Midwest’s transportation and electricity systems are particularly at risk of physical damage and disruption to services, leading to far wider economic impacts to both the region and the nation.

For taxpayers and businesses to thrive, there are few things more important than a region’s infrastructure systems. Reliable transportation networks are crucial to ensure the efficient movement of food, energy, and trade. Workers and consumers depend on roads, bridges, and transit systems to access jobs and markets. Energy production not only rests upon the delivery of resources, but also the operability of the transmission lines to homes and businesses. Yet climate change, and the corresponding extreme weather events experienced across the nation, will continue to threaten these systems.

Temperatures in the Midwest have increased by 4.5 degrees since the 1980s. The number of days with “very heavy precipitation” has increased by 27 percent since the 1950s. The Great Lakes only experienced 43 percent ice coverage in the early 2000s, compared to an average ice coverage of 52 percent between 1961 and 2013. And these conditions are only expected to worsen, with temperatures continuing to rise and precipitation patterns changing; through the mid-century, spring rains are anticipated to increase by 9 percent, while summer rains decrease by 8 percent.

Evidence clearly indicates that the climate is changing both in the Midwest and worldwide. Transportation and electricity infrastructure systems will particularly feel these effects. And as these systems serve as the lifeblood of any region, governments, individuals, and businesses will be forced to bear the burden.

Climate change puts the Midwest’s transport and electricity systems at risk, with impacts all across North America.

Increased heat will reduce the lifespan of pavements, add stress to expansion joints for bridges and highways, cause pavements and railways to buckle, and affect aircraft performance. Flooding will weaken structural supports for bridges, deteriorate soil that supports roadways, tunnels, and bridges, and increase sedimentation in waterways. And severe storms that produce high winds, ice, snow, and lightning can damage electricity lines, particularly those in the Midwest where the majority of electricity transmission and distribution is above ground.

The Midwest as a Trading Hub

Beyond these already alarming structural concerns, the disruption of the operations of these systems has the potential to affect the entire nation, as the Midwest serves as the freight hub of North America. Roughly 25 percent of the nation’s freight trains and 50 percent of all intermodal trains pass through Chicago alone. Approximately 35 percent of all trade between the U.S. and Canada comes through Michigan. National and international trade is further supplemented through the Midwest’s interstate highway system, expansive waterways facilitating maritime connections to the Great Lakes, and multiple border crossings with Canada.

To put it into perspective, five of Chicago’s top 10 domestic trading partners are outside the Midwest, including Los Angeles, New York City, Memphis, Atlanta, and Dallas/Fort Worth. Cumulative domestic trade flows in 2012 between the Chicago region and Los Angeles and Atlanta totaled $11 billion and $7.9 billion, respectively. Similarly, Los Angeles and Dallas/Fort Worth are among Indianapolis and Detroit’s top domestic trading partners.

As a result, businesses both near and far will be touched if the Midwest does not adequately prepare for the impact of climate change on its infrastructure. As a prime example, the drought of 2012 disrupted barge traffic due to near record low water levels on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, forcing shipments to switch to alternate modes of transportation. While it is fortunate that viable alternatives were available, this is not an option for all shipments; it causes added economic stress to businesses and leads to unnecessary traffic on already-congested highway and railway corridors.

It is widely known that infrastructure is grossly underfunded to meet the maintenance and growth needs of the nation. The funding gap already stands at more than $2 trillion by 2025, yet how much more will be required to address climate-change-related repairs?

As local, state, and federal governments consider issues ranging from modernizing transportation systems to planning new housing and commercial developments, it is in the taxpayers’ best interest that they also account for today’s climate realities. In terms of infrastructure, policymakers and project planners should incorporate updated design standards to protect these investments and mitigate against future damages and disruptions. This should also include limits on development in areas that have already experienced extreme weather-related damage.

Similarly, a review of existing development regulations should also be considered. Following the flood of 1993, Midwest communities attempted to remedy flood-prone areas by elevating and relocating properties. However, the region faced severe flooding again in 2008. And as reported by the Congressional Research Service, while some communities were better off due to their efforts, significant commercial, industrial, and highway development had occurred in the 500-year flood plain, opening these areas up to risks from the heavy precipitation storms that have become more common. From Houston to New Orleans, communities across the nation have learned time and again it is far cheaper to invest in smart planning and risk management than it is to repair or rebuild after the fact.

Further Action Required

Several Midwestern states have taken positive strides in recent years, including the adoption of greenhouse gas emissions targets, climate action plans, and adaptation plans. However, much more can and should be done.

Only Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota have adopted adaptation plans, which outline a state’s infrastructure vulnerabilities toward climate change and create a plan and implementation process to address those weaknesses. Similarly, the state departments of transportation in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio have pursued asset management programs to identify vulnerabilities and protect the investments taxpayers have already made in infrastructure.

While it is encouraging to hear of the adoption of such policies, it is important to remember that policies and plans are only as good as the leaders who are intent on implementing them. Although climate action plans were pursued in Illinois and Michigan in the late 2000s, neither have been actively pursued under current leadership. Similarly, President Donald Trump has been quick to retreat from international agreements designed to curb worldwide emissions and to rescind many climate-related strategies of the Obama administration.

Climate change has already caused, and will continue to cause for many years to come, unimaginable impacts on the nation’s population, environments, and economy. No one policy or action alone will halt the harmful effects, but we cannot hide from this new climate reality.

As the Midwest and the nation continue to see an increase in the number and severity of extreme weather events attributable to climate change, it is imperative that public officials act to protect the tens of billions of dollars of investment in infrastructure systems that serve as the heart of the nation’s economy.

Mary Craighead, AICP

Transportation Policy Analyst at Illinois Economic Policy Institute

Prior to joining the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, Mary Craighead served as the coordinator for the Victoria, Texas, Metropolitan Planning Organization and senior transportation planner for the City of Victoria, Texas. Read her latest research about the impact of climate change on Midwest infrastructure here.

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