How DC plans to address the impacts of climate change on transportation infrastructure

- Greater Greater Washington

This summer’s extreme weather events have had a harmful impact on transportation infrastructure throughout the US. In June, streetcar service in Portland, Oregon was forced to shut down after a heatwave melted power cables. Roads cracked and buckled across Washington State, and had to be closed for repairs.


In New York City, flooding in July and September shut down subway service, with closures and delays lasting for days. Streets flooded in New York as well, and thousands were stranded on public transit during the flooding caused by Hurricane Ida. Streets and rail lines in Philadelphia were closed due to flooding from the Schuylkill River. Climate change has affected DC as well.


Ida flooded roads and knocked out power in the region. Heavy rains in September trapped cars, closed roads, and flooded the Dupont Metro station. Rains have continued to grow more intense, as the region had its wettest year on record in 2018 and its seventh-wettest year on record in 2020. Even without rain, flooding is a potential threat in the region. The Potomac River has risen by 11 inches in the last century, which is far ahead of the global average, and it is projected to rise by 3.4 feet by 2080. This makes the area in its watershed far more vulnerable to flooding. Between April 2018 and May 2019, DC had a record-setting 22 days of sunny day flooding, which occurs without rain to trigger it.


So what is the District doing to curb the damage climate change causes our transportation infrastructure? Here’s what local agencies have planned so far.


DOEE

The most comprehensive plan for addressing questions of climate resiliency in the District has been drafted by the Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE), the District agency that works to promote “environmentally responsible behavior.” DOEE conducted a series of vulnerability assessments, which it released in a report in 2016. The report concluded that, while roadways in DC are not highly vulnerable to heat right now, the possibility of 9.5-12 day long heatwaves occurring by 2080 should be considered in road construction.


Aboveground Metro lines are considered to be more vulnerable to heat than roads, with the segments of the Yellow Line between Pentagon and L’Enfant Plaza, the Orange Line between Stadium Armory and Deanwood, and the Red Line between NOMA/Gallaudet University and Brookland CUA being the most vulnerable.


Flooding is a greater risk to transit in DC than heat is, as several major roadways and Metro lines were projected to be at risk of flooding as early as 2020. In addition, the Archives Navy Memorial, Federal Triangle, and Federal Center SW Metro stations were projected to be vulnerable to flooding by 2020, 2050, and 2080 respectively. Flooding also carries a more indirect risk for transit, as the disruptions to power caused by extreme precipitation could disrupt transportation. I reached out to DOEE via email about what its plans were to address these concerns, but they could not be reached for comment.


DDOT

In 2013, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) released its own Climate Change Adaptation Plan, which analyzed the vulnerability of the district’s transportation assets to climate change. The plan concluded that the risks to transportation infrastructure posed by increased temperatures, such as pavement buckling, premature infrastructure deterioration and the thermal expansion of joints on bridges, were low. The threats to transportation posed by flooding were judged as being more likely, as drainage overloading and failure and the flooding of roadways in low-lying areas were given a medium vulnerability ranking.


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