Climate Change and our Transportation System

I spent Wednesday morning at a Rappapport Institute forum on climate change and transportation infrastructure.

When I think about the local impacts of climate change, what I worry about most is water — flooding due to sea level rise.  Increased precipitation is also an issue, but for the coastal region that I represent, the big issue is sea level rise.

The areas I serve are sheltered from direct coastal flooding and do not face immediate inundation risks, but every legislator has to be concerned about the vulnerabilities of the transportation system that the region depends on.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has lead the region’s efforts to understand climate change — making the initial investment in the Boston Harbor Flood Risk Model to better understand the risks to the central artery and harbor tunnels.  The BH-FRM has been the foundation of much the other modeling done by other agencies over the past few years.

At the forum, I was very pleased to see evidence of a continuing high level of attention to flooding issues on the part of the transportation leadership of the state.  Steve Poftak, who is the executive director of Rappaport Institute, organized the forum.  He also serves on the board of the MassDOT and on the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board. Monica Tibbets Nutt, another member of both the MassDOT board and the FMCB, led one of the panels. Also participating actively in the conversation was Steve Kadish who is chairing the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation.

Samantha Silverberg, Senior Director for Capital Planning at the MBTA, discussed the T’s efforts.  The MBTA does not yet have in place a comprehensive vulnerability assessment, but they are moving towards that piece by piece, looking at the most obvious exposures first.  Areas of immediate concern include the coastally exposed Blue Line stations and Kenmore station which experienced flooding in the 90s.

I’ve been asking for a clearer plan to get all the T’s vulnerability identified, but I certainly heard the right ideas in Ms. Silverberg’s presentation.  She acknowledged the many dimensions of climate vulnerability, but emphasized flood risks.  She talked about making sure that every project was designed with resiliency in mind.  Jennifer Sullivan, the Assistant Secretary for Capital Finance for the state as whole, echoed many of the same thoughts.

Steve Miller, who heads resiliency planning for MassDOT talked about efforts to extend the Boston Harbor flood risk model to all of coastal Massachusetts.  His presentation did surface one fundamental challenge:  All of the deep analysis that we might do locally depends ultimately on a hugely uncertain global future.   For example, the new coastal model will use projections about sea-level rise due to polar ice melting that go a foot or two above what the BH-FRM assumed.   The transportation planner from Rhode Island indicated that they were using assumptions that were an additional foot or two more pessimistic.  These differences matter in the flat coastal plain that includes Boston and its inner suburbs.  The flood risks estimated for 2070 might come a decade or two sooner.

Several of the speakers recognized the need to start planning based on ranges — most engineers are used to thinking of a single water level that they need be prepared to protect against.  Given the global uncertainties, we need to manage consequences in multiple scenarios.  The thinking gets even more complicated as one tries to take a systems approach — if one station is flooded, does the whole system come down?  Will alternatives routes remain open?  Rawlings Miller, a federal resiliency planner, described efforts to manage risk more systemically.

Overall, it was an encouraging morning — very good to see so many people in positions of responsibility for our transportation infrastructure taking the issue of sea-level rise very seriously.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

23 replies on “Climate Change and our Transportation System”

  1. Thank you for this report. Let’s hope this leads to action -and soon. The flood risks will be apparent long before 2070.

  2. Will, There is an interesting exhibit just up at the Boston Society of Architects’ space on Congress St in Boston showing a wide variety of resiliency and habitat restoration projects and ideas for coastal locations. The firm I work for, cbt architects in Boston, is very interested and concerned about the design to mitigate and plan for water.

  3. One of the vulnerabilities for the Back Bay/Fenway area that is often overlooked is flooding at Fort Point Channel or the Reserve Channel that would then come in the “back door” through the South End and over the original Boston Neck which sometimes flooded at very high tides in colonial times. The Charles River Dam is only a partial solution, and I think we may be overconfident of our protection.

  4. Thank you once again for your excellent report to your constituents (and others who would listen to you).

    Since you obviously grasp the need to protect not only your constituents but all the low-lying communities of the Metro Boston estuary, would a similar symposium to discuss a comprehensive Metro Boston DikeLANDS barrier reaching from the estuary’s shoulder areas (a unique feature of our estuary) of Swampscott and Cohasset not make sense?

    Questions to
    Peter Papesch, AIA
    REGIONAL POTENTIAL – Metro Boston 2030 co-founder
    Metro Boston DikeLANDS co-founder
    617 267-6598

  5. One issue that I would like to see addressed is refugee accommodation. Imagine the city of Boston gets a storm-related tidal surge on a scale that the models tell us we should be thinking about. How many basement apartments in Boston would be wrecked? How many people would be made homeless? Where would they go? How would we manage?

  6. I sure hope the MBTA is thinking about Alewife and the Fitchburg rail line. Both are highly vulnerable as you well know.

  7. Thanks for keeping your eye on the ball. We can’t be reactive to this issue – it’s going to take a proactive investment.

  8. Since you are concerned about water and MA’s transportation system, you should support the efforts of Transit X for a privately-funded mass transit system to replace our cars and roads. It elevates our transportation system where water doesn’t reach. It solves both resiliency, funding, safety, and congestion.
    Other countries such as the Philippines and India are moving forward along with Leominster, MA. The question is why Boston isn’t taking the high road.

    “This Startup Wants To Replace Cars (And Subways) With Elevated Pods”

  9. We need to plan for alternative routes. I’ve read that there is an unused tunnel on the Boston side of the Charles River that might be used to relieve some of the burden of multiple line intersections (red, green) in Park Street station.

    If some of the commuter traffic from Harvard Square to the Medical Area could be facilitated by a direct route, that direct route would reduce the need to travel all the way downtown for a red/green transfer.

    Other possibilities might include crossing the Charles via a Watertown Square to Newton Center connection. Watertown Square now has many bus connections that could be developed or extended as feeders to a rail transport system. The bus boarding areas are both north and south of the Charles, an inconvenient walk for mobility-impaired persons.

    Planning now for alternative connections is a good investment.

  10. I guess the real question one should be asking is – what does the T have in place at this time ?

    I have seen proposals to block Boston Harbor but I think that is too expensive and a unreasonable approach to this problem. Requiring ocean property owners to build a seawall of a certain height might be more reasonable – after all they are blocking access and building on these lots – shouldn’t they also be responsible for flood control – especially since they may be taking down existing natural flood control –

  11. Thank you for your leadership on this issue, having authored a bill on this topic, which became law a few years ago. And also thanks for keeping folks up-to-date on goings on regarding this very important topic! It matters for our health and security as well as future generations, and our economy.

  12. This is very valuable; although precipitation and storm surge are also major contributors that will affect your district. Inland flooding is expected to be extreme in many of our neighborhoods, including projections of 4′ of flooding to Fresh Pond area once the Amelia Earhart Dam is breached. Roadways, bridges, and MBTA stations are highly vulnerable. Note the aquarium stop was already closed due to flooding caused by storm surge at high tide. See the Cambridge Climate Change Vulnerability and Adapation Plan. and Climate Ready Boston.

    Boston is planning an approach based on equity. Addressing climate change can be a opportunity if it is built from resident leadership and addresses the pressing current disparities in our region.

    Thank you

  13. What flooding???? Climate change? Didn’t it used to be global warming until they found out there wasn’t any warming?

  14. Does anyone remember monorails?? stay above the fray, traffic, and water.

  15. Thank you for sending this to me. It is a relief to see this level of planning for our very uncertain climate future.

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