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Climate Change Adaptation Peer Exchanges: Comprehensive Report

2. Best Practices and Strategies for Overcoming Common Challenges

DOTs and MPOs in the Midwest, West Coast, and New England regions are coping with different climate impacts and operating in unique political and social contexts. However, as agencies in these regions begin planning for projected changes in climates, they are experiencing similar challenges. This section of the report outlines these common challenges and documents the strategies that agencies recommended for overcoming them.

Developing Guidance and Information for Climate Vulnerability Assessments

Challenge: Methods of Evaluating Vulnerability and Risk

There are not yet established best practices for evaluating climate change vulnerability or integrating climate change considerations into existing risk mitigation efforts. DOTs and MPOs often struggle with identifying the climate change impacts that will matter at a local scale and understanding the alignment of climate change impacts with decision making. In addition, the amount of projected climate data available can be overwhelming, and it is difficult for agencies to determine which scenarios, models, and data to use in assessing vulnerability.

Value of Top-Down Leadership and Guidance

Strong leadership at every level is critical to motivating and directing successful vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning efforts. For example, in California, Oregon, and Washington, direction from state legislatures and governors has been integral to sparking action at the state DOT level. Since these agencies are responding to direction from the State, they do not need to spend resources justifying the importance and relevance of climate change to stakeholders. Participants in both the Northeast and Midwest peer exchanges observed that building relationships and trust, both within and across agencies, is a critical first step for both hazard mitigation and adaptation planning. Since effective adaptation will require cross-cutting work, increased collaboration with state DOTs, municipalities, universities, and federal agencies, particularly FEMA, is needed. Often, leadership plays an important role in encouraging this type of cross-agency collaboration.

In addition to political leadership, guidance from the State on which data sources to use, which climate scenarios to consider, and which policies should address adaptation is valuable for DOTs and MPOs. During the West Coast Peer Exchange, participants noted that state-level direction forcing agencies to cooperate and share information was very helpful in shaping adaptation policy. For example, Washington State has mandated that government agencies use climate data from the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group (CIG). California Executive Order S-13-08 directs state agencies planning construction projects in areas vulnerable to sea level rise to begin planning for potential impacts. The state has developed statewide sea level rise projections to support these planning efforts. State DOTs can also provide this type of technical guidance to MPOs and internal staff working at the project and planning level. For example, in May of 2011, Caltrans released its Guidance on Incorporating Sea Level Rise, which the Caltrans Planning staff and Project Development teams use in order to determine whether and how to incorporate sea level rise concerns into the programming and design of Department projects.

During the New England Peer Exchange, representatives from MPOs echoed the importance of coordinated guidance on climate projections. To provide a real-life example, a member of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact attended this peer exchange. In the absence of state-wide guidance on sea level rise scenarios for Florida, the four county members of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact adopted a single set of sea level rise projections and inundation maps for the region. Using this set of projections allowed the four counties to advocate and communicate more effectively with a unified voice. In addition, these projections provide the basis for designating adaptation priority areas, focusing investments and service expansions, and modifying design standards.

Managing Resource Constraints and Streamlining Processes

Challenge: Addressing Climate Change with Limited Resources

Transportation agencies manage multiple, interacting stressors while planning, programming and designing, projects. Often, resources are barely sufficient for maintaining the status quo for transportation operations and investments. Participants from each exchange noted the challenge of considering climate change as a new risk at a time when agencies are currently struggling to maintain existing operations.

Integrating Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation into Existing Practices

Participants at each of the three peer exchanges recommended integrating vulnerability assessment and adaptation into existing decision-making processes, particularly asset management and emergency management. Considering climate change as one of many risks to be considered in existing decision-making processes, rather than a separate issue requiring its own framework, lowers barriers to adaptation.

Asset Management

Most vulnerability assessments require information on the location and condition of transportation assets. Asset management systems often collect and manage this type of information in order to help DOTs and MPOs locate and evaluate their assets, monitor performance, and make informed investment decisions. During the Midwest Peer Exchange, Stephen Gaj of FHWA's Office of Asset Management defined asset management as, "a strategic and systematic process of operating, maintaining, upgrading and expanding physical assets effectively throughout their lifecycle." As part of asset management efforts, transportation agencies collect data on the location and attributes of the assets that they own and operate in order to understand the tradeoffs associated with continued investment in those assets. For example, DOT representatives from the Midwestern Peer Exchange noted that understanding the location of culverts in the floodplain can help identify assets at risk. Since effective adaptation requires understanding existing vulnerabilities in a transportation system, data collected for asset management purposes can inform climate change vulnerability assessments.

WSDOT's Bridge Office has already started considering how climate change could be integrated into their Bridge Engineering Information System (BEIST). BEIST is an asset management system that provides a central location for file storage, including photographs, inspection records, maintenance fixes, and ground line surveys. When WSDOT combines the information contained in BEIST with sea level rise inundation maps, the agency is able to estimate the site-specific vulnerability of bridges.

Emergency Management

Emergency management and hazard mitigation plans provide another avenue for "mainstreaming" climate change adaptation into decision making. Not only is extreme weather event preparation an important adaptation strategy, but post-disaster reconstruction can provide opportunities to rebuild infrastructure to a higher standard or relocate it out of hazardous areas. For example, following Tropical Storm Irene in August of 2011, there was massive flooding damage to Vermont's infrastructure, including downcutting and undermining of roads, channel enlargement, and debris jamming and avulsion. Vermont DOT's timely response to Hurricane Irene depended on existing systems, including the online bridge and culvert tool and the state's culvert inventories. Due to the fact that these systems had been organized in advance, Vermont was able to map all damaged locations within two and a half weeks of the storm. Following Tropical Storm Irene, Vermont has been pursuing innovative techniques for managing riverine flood risk, including designing river channels to allow room for flooding and natural channel migration. In the areas identified as important floodplains, the State would like to provide communities with incentives for either elevating or relocating built structures.

During the Midwest Peer Exchange, MPO participants noted that county hazard mitigation plans provide a natural vehicle for climate change adaptation. In 2000, Congress passed the Disaster Mitigation Act, which requires communities to profile their natural hazards, assess the risk to the community or state, and identify strategies to mitigate future losses in order to be eligible for federal disaster funds. In the Midwest, the Polis Center has helped counties use Hazus-MH, a tool maintained by FEMA, to develop Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plans. The Polis Center has quantified flood risks for more than 2,000 non-coastal counties and is helping Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Indiana update flood mitigation plans. Participants at this exchange emphasized the importance of updating flood plain maps to accurately reflect risk.

Long-Range Planning

Long-range planning provides a third avenue for incorporating climate change considerations into existing decision-making frameworks. For example, the Boston Region MPO is conducting hazard mapping in order to identify areas where transportation infrastructure may be vulnerable to natural hazards and to inform the security evaluation of proposed transportation projects. The MPO has an interactive web tool ( that maps the transportation network, natural flood zones, bridge condition, emergency routes, and emergency support facilities. The tool links to the MPO's database of Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) projects and can be used to determine whether proposed projects are located in areas exposed to flooding, storm surge, or sea level rise.

During the New England Peer Exchange, the participants agreed that incorporating climate change considerations into evaluation criteria can help MPOs prioritize projects. In addition, the earlier that climate risks are considered in the planning process, the greater the ability of the MPO to intervene in the project.

Adaptation as a Co-Benefit

Participants at the three peer exchanges also recommended prioritizing programs and projects that increase resilience as a co-benefit, rather than a main focus. For example, WSDOT's fish passage program is installing bigger culverts which will not only improve fish passage, but will also increase the system's capacity to handle future stream flows. Caltrans has also now started designing for 100 year storms and using drilled shafts. Since increasing resilience to climate change is just one of several benefits resulting from these projects, it is easier to communicate and justify the need for these programs.

Communicating and Coordinating with Stakeholders

Challenge: Lack of Coordination and Information Sharing among Communities

Participants mentioned the need for increased collaboration between MPOs, DOTs, federal agencies, universities, and other stakeholders engaged on this issue. For example, during the Midwest Peer Exchange, participants agreed that lack of information sharing between agencies is one of the biggest barriers to hazard mitigation. Participants also noted that, in many cases, coordinating and communicating within a single agency can also be daunting. For example, communicating climate change issues within Caltrans is difficult because Caltrans has over 20,000 staff located in 12 district offices and headquarters. Relevant climate change adaptation information needs to be directed to a wide range of staff across disciplines and offices, making frequent discussions challenging.

Building Relationships and Establishing Trust with Key Stakeholders

According to peer exchange participants, it is difficult to overstate the importance of public process and stakeholder engagement in vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning. Communication and stakeholder engagement were major themes in all three peer exchanges, and participants agreed that successful communication can be considered a type of adaptation in and of itself. During the Northeast Peer Exchange, participants noted that if the public or other target audience doesn't buy into the vulnerability assessment, they may not support the resulting adaptation actions.

The appropriate method of engaging stakeholders will vary according to the agency context and objectives. It is very important to plan for a specific target audience, and agencies often engage different groups of stakeholders in stages. For example, both ODOT and WSDOT began vulnerability assessment processes strategies by conducting interviews with on-the-ground personnel, such as maintenance staff. WSDOT conducted regional workshops across the state in order to solicit institutional knowledge of system vulnerabilities in a structured environment. ODOT conducted a workshop on adaptation that focused on engineers and technical services people. Not only did these workshops allow ODOT and WSDOT to gather important institutional knowledge, they also fostered ownership of the assessment results across the entire agency. During the West Coast Peer Exchange, these agencies noted that successful engagement of internal staff requires listening to them and incorporating their feedback and perspective. If these staff members are engaged and feel that they can take ownership of the strategy, they may be more willing to provide valuable leadership and insight.

Facilitating Information Sharing and Coordination among Agencies

One of the main purposes of these peer exchanges was to facilitate information sharing and coordination among agencies. The participants were interested to learn how different agencies have approached climate change planning, implementation, and communication. The peer exchanges also created an opportunity for DOT, MPO, Federal agency, and university attendees to make valuable connections.

Coordinating Planning Processes within Agencies

State DOTs and MPOs have a strong interest in integrating climate change adaptation, hazard mitigation, and transportation planning into a holistic planning process. In many communities, hazard mitigation occurs separately from local planning processes, including transportation planning. This practice can sometimes result in land use and transportation planning that inadvertently encourages development in hazardous areas. Communities are increasingly working to integrate hazard mitigation planning into local planning processes. For example, Chittenden County MPO in Vermont is currently working with a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant to integrate climate change adaptation, hazard mitigation, and transportation into a single planning document.

Challenge: Communicating the Need for Climate Change Adaptation

Communicating the need for climate change adaptation is challenging for several reasons. First, people often assume that "climate change" issues refer exclusively to mitigation. Organizations and government agencies often house climate change adaptation efforts within traditional environmental programs, even though adaptation impacts multiple programs, including asset management, risk mitigation, operations, and planning. In addition, since the national discussion on climate change has focused on mitigation policies and debates around the science of climate, the term climate change has become politicized. Second, it is difficult to communicate the range of uncertainty associated with climate projections. For example, agencies are often concerned about releasing detailed inundation maps, which might alarm and alienate coastal property owners because it is difficult to describe the specific assumptions and uncertainties associated with these maps.

Strategies for Effective Communication

In order to avoid confusing the issue of climate change adaptation with the politics of climate change mitigation, participants at the Midwest and Northeast Peer Exchanges recommended using the terms "extreme events," "event management," "multi-hazard management," and "resilience" as effective terms for communicating impacts and adaptation issues.

Another strategy for communicating the need for adaptation is to expand conceptions of sustainability to include resilience. For example, participants at the West Coast Peer Exchange noted that messaging around sustainability can be targeted for specific audiences. They also recommended communicating that climate change adaptation is simple, good business practice that should be integrated throughout the agency.

Updated: 10/20/2015
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