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Assessment of the Body of Knowledge on Incorporating Climate Change Adaptation Measures into Transportation Projects

4 Best Practices for Mainstreaming Adaptation

The research and experience to date on incorporating climate change adaptation measures into transportation projects reveal several best practices on early steps that agencies can take to adapt to climate changes or prepare themselves to implement adaptation measures. These best practices can apply to all strategies discussed in Section 3, and can prepare agencies to take advantage of opportunities to adapt as they may arise through standard business practices. These early steps include: tracking performance metrics, incorporating climate change considerations in asset management programs, setting up frameworks to enable opportunistic adaptation, developing adaptation priorities, and developing system-wide approaches to adaptation. Each of these steps helps to incorporate climate change into existing decision-making structures and facilitate implementation of adaptation strategies when opportunities present themselves.

4.1 Recognize Adaptation as a Co-Benefit

Many of the adaptation efforts underway in the United States are not explicitly climate change adaptation projects. This is because resiliency is often just one of many benefits of common-sense approaches to managing transportation systems (see "Strategies for Effective Implementation" text box on page 14). Transportation practitioners should acknowledge that adaptation is not usually a stand-alone effort (FHWA 2012b).

4.2 Establish Tracking Systems and Performance Metrics

Understanding the impacts of weather and climate on transportation systems enables agencies to make more informed decisions about infrastructure investments, operations, and maintenance practices. Transportation organizations have found success by tracking metrics such as how often weather-related disruptions occur, the reasons for the disruptions, the costs of the disruptions, and other factors relevant to decision-making. For example, agencies that track which culverts repeatedly flood or how often extreme heat disrupts the system can be better prepared to make adjustments to improve how the system responds to those events.

Asset management programs are common vehicles for such tracking. Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA), Minnesota DOT, MARTA in Atlanta, and SEPTA in Philadelphia provide some examples of organizations that are using their asset management programs to track metrics related to climate change vulnerability and adaptation (FTA 2013, Hill 2013, Springstead 2012, and Zale and Johanson 2012). Organizations may be able to use asset management programs and asset maintenance systems to flag assets that are repeatedly affected by weather events and track the costs of those repeated events.

Emergency management systems, hazard mitigation plans, or environmental management systems are also vehicles for integrating climate change vulnerability into existing processes (FHWA 2012b). For example, LA Metro is integrating climate adaptation into its Environmental Management System and identifying opportunities for adaptation through their existing environmental clearance process (Liban 2012).

4.3 Plan in Advance to Facilitate Opportunistic Adaptation

The most cost-efficient adaptation measures are those completed in the course of business-as-usual maintenance, construction, repair, or replacement projects. In other words, the time when you are already working on your system is an opportunity to make that system more resilient. However, those opportunities can sometimes arise unexpectedly, and a best practice is that organizations be prepared to convert these opportunities into adaptation projects.

One way to do this is by incorporating climate-related considerations into project evaluations. For example, the Boston Region MPO linked their database of TIP projects to hazard maps so they can determine whether proposed projects are located in areas exposed to flooding, storm surge, or sea level rise and make adjustments to those projects as appropriate (Boston Region MPO 2013a). Caltrans has developed guidance for districts on incorporating projected sea level rise into new projects.

Another key way to do this is by having information about climate impacts, costs, and benefits handy at key decision points. This is where metrics tracking and asset management program areas are useful, because if the information is in plain sight alongside all other information that decision makers use when making project decisions, then it can be mainstreamed in common-sense ways, without necessitating official frameworks.

Finally, pre-planning for post-disaster response can also help organizations take advantage of opportunities to increase infrastructure resiliency after extreme events. If extreme events damage infrastructure, the impetus is to replace those assets as quickly as possible and often there is not time or funding available to rebuild assets (or the system) to be more resilient. This challenge is discussed in Section 6 of this report. Organizations can work to overcome this challenge by establishing plans ahead of time for how rebuilding for resilience can be accomplished expediently after extreme events.

4.4 Develop Priorities

Developing priorities can be a good way to maximize the impact of adaptation planning, especially with limited resources (e.g., funding, staff time, technical capacity). Criticality and vulnerability are two criteria that agencies have used to prioritize adaptation efforts. Criticality represents how important an asset is to the transportation system. Several transportation organizations have completed criticality assessments to help prioritize adaptation. FHWA provides information on these assessments in its "Assessing Criticality in Transportation Adaptation Planning" resource (FHWA 2011).

Another way to develop adaptation priorities is to identify the historical vulnerability of assets or system components to weather events. Historic vulnerability is a valuable starting point for organizations looking to perform an initial assessment of vulnerability. For example, MassDOT did a survey of district staff to identify problem areas with repeat flooding. Several organizations have also completed prospective vulnerability analyses, which take into account projected climate changes and intrinsic characteristics of assets to determine which areas are most vulnerable. From there, organizations can prioritize adaptation strategies for those areas of the system that are most critical and vulnerable.

4.5 Identify Ideal Timeframes for Adaptation

Understanding when to adapt is equally as important as selecting a feasible set of adaptation options. Effective adaptation is all about timing. Many agencies have chosen to begin adapting by selecting strategies that are certain to deliver benefits in the short-term regardless of how climate change accelerates in the future. For example, developing a more sophisticated dust storm monitoring system delivered immediate benefits to Arizona DOT, while also laying the groundwork for adaptive management of possible drier conditions in the future.

4.6 Build Capacity, Engage Stakeholders, and Educate the Public

Implementation of any adaptation strategy requires strong leadership and effective stakeholder engagement. Therefore, one of the most important early steps that a transportation agency can take to prepare for climate change is to educate and engage stakeholders both within and outside of the organization (FHWA 2012b). This type of engagement will help garner both public support (to justify use of resources for adaptation) as well as institutional support (to ensure all levels of staff, from the on-the-ground engineers to the top administrators, understand the need for adaptation).

In addition to building capacity within an organization, educating the public about anticipated climate impacts and supporting effective political leadership are two adaptation strategies that are low-cost with highly certain benefits (ISC 2010). For example, Arizona DOT undertook a major public outreach campaign to educate drivers about the necessity of pulling over during dust storms (Toth 2013). Using tactics such as a haiku contest, engaging videos with clips of the dust storm, and text message alerts, the DOT has worked towards implementing behavior change to improve public safety. While this outreach has obvious short-term benefits, it is also a way of building Arizona's capacity to handle future changes in climate.

4.7 Share Information among Transportation Practitioners

Across all steps of the adaptation process and types of adaptation activities, state and local transportation officials have achieved success by learning from their peers. Formal peer exchanges, informal relationships between individuals in different organizations, and other ways for organizations to share their experiences have immense value in supporting resilient transportation systems. This type of collaboration and information sharing is a best practice for maximizing the success of adaptation efforts.

These peer exchanges do not need to be formal. Further, they can also occur within organizations. For example, Caltrans has identified liaisons in district offices across the state to share information about climate change best practices (Caltrans 2013). Building relationships within the transportation community is a best practice in adaptation, because states can learn from one another beyond the walls of symposium or workshop settings. When states are comfortable reaching out to other states and discussing their shared experiences and lessons learned, everyone can become more resilient.

Workshops, meetings, and peer exchanges are a good tool for assessing the challenges of and recommendations for incorporating adaptation into the transportation decision making process. Such a forum provides transportation practitioners the opportunity to discuss collaborative activities and past experiences. There have been several key transportation adaptation peer exchanges and workshops in the past few years, with key findings of these meetings available in summary reports. For example, FHWA and AASHTO have hosted multiple meetings over the past three years focused on building a community of practice around climate vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning (see FHWA 2012b, Choate et al. 2012, Meyer et al. 2013).

4.8 Consider Systems Holistically

Finally, a key best practice, and one that is particularly important in the early stages of adaptation planning, is that transportation adaptation planning needs to consider transportation systems holistically. The goal of adaptation is to make transportation systems and services resilient, not necessarily specific assets. Adapting specific assets that are critical to the functioning of the entire system may be a key part of an adaptation strategy, but adaptation strategies can also include ways to build redundancy in the system and take into account future demands on the system as well. Further, transportation systems do not operate in isolation, and their vulnerabilities are also closely tied to vulnerabilities in other sectors, such as the energy sector. A best practice in adaptation planning is to consider the system as a whole, as opposed to adapting asset-by-asset.

Updated: 3/27/2014
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