The residents of Stillwright Point, a neighborhood in Key Largo, Florida, know better than almost anyone that U.S. infrastructure is vulnerable to climate change. The neighborhood experiences months of tidal flooding every autumn, with water pooling in streets and driveways for days at a time. At the height of the cycle, many people cant get to the highway. The county government has resorted to placing large orange water blockers on the side of the road to limit the flooding. But thats a stopgap solution.
On the face of it, Stillwright Point looks like a poster child for the bipartisan infrastructure bill that President Biden signed into law earlier this year. To remain inhabitable, the neighborhood needs to physically raise many miles of roads, ensuring that they can be accessed amid flooding. That will require a dramatic infusion of capital funding, far more than the county government of the Keys can raise on its own. Yet its far from guaranteed that Stillwright Points residential streets will see any money from the new bill, even though the bill promises at least $13 billion for highway projects in Florida. If the county cant find enough money to elevate all the roads, itll have to abandon some of them to the ocean, replacing them with seasonal ferry service during high tide.
Thats in part because the bipartisan bill lacks a coherent approach to tackling climate risk. The bill contains significant new funding for climate adaptation measures such as seawalls and home buyouts, all under the umbrella title of resiliency. But other much-touted investments in the nations hard infrastructure lack any climate-related incentives or restrictions. That means theres nothing stopping state governments from building new infrastructure without considering climate risk, or from neglecting the existing infrastructure that is most vulnerable to climate change. This hodgepodge approach to climate adaptation, the result of a bipartisan compromise, highlights the need for a whole-of-government approach to preparing for climate change.
Theres nothing stopping state governments from building new infrastructure without considering climate risk.
The largest tranche of money in the bipartisan bill goes toward so-called hard transportation infrastructure such as roads, highways, bridges, and public transit. This pot of money, around $250 billion in all, is designed to help clear a backlog of stalled and unbuilt transportation projects around the country.
For the most part, this money comes without strings attached. A small part of the new funding will be controlled by the Department of Transportation, which will allow Secretary Pete Buttigieg to dole out money through competitive grant programs that in theory could prioritize disaster mitigation. But the largest portion falls to the states themselves, which will receive money according to preset federal funding formulas. That means state officials will have complete discretion over whether to use this funding to repair old infrastructure or build new infrastructure, and also to decide what kind of new projects they want to fund.
In Texas, for instance, the state transportation department has been working for years to complete the Grand Parkway, a 180-mile beltway that will run most of the way around the sprawling Houston area. The new funding could help push the long-delayed project forward. In Colorado, meanwhile, state officials are likely to use the transportation funding to expand the congested I-270 that runs north of downtown Denver. The projects most likely to receive funding from the new bill are ones that have already been conceived and designed, and are thus shovel-ready once new money arrives.
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The result is that the projects funded by this infrastructure bill will only be as useful and as forward-looking as the state officials who disburse the money. Despite the Biden administrations stated goals of combating climate change and furthering environmental justice, theres nothing to prevent local officials from funding projects that run counter to those aims. The Grand Parkway in Houston, for instance, will encourage further sprawl into the prairie that surrounds the city, eliminating natural flood protection for surrounding residents. The expansion of I-270 in Denver, meanwhile, may saddle the Hispanic residents of nearby Commerce City with increased air pollution from passing vehicles.
Theres also no incentive for local authorities to consider climate vulnerabilities, such as flooding and sea level rise, in their decision-making on what infrastructure to fund. According to a recent report from First Street Foundation, almost a quarter of the nations roads are vulnerable to catastrophic flooding, and not just coastal roads like the ones in Stillwright Point. The below-grade Major Deegan Expressway in New York City flooded during the remnants of Hurricane Ida, as did Interstate 40 during the episode of flash flooding in Middle Tennessee earlier this year. Flooding isnt the only danger, either: A section of Interstate 70 in central Colorado shut down for months this year after a wildfire-induced mudslide rendered the road impassable.
Projects funded by the infrastructure bill will only be as useful and as forward-looking as the state officials who disburse the money.
Other forms of infrastructure face similar risk. Seaports such as the Port of Virginia have already had to renovate their infrastructure to accommodate rising seas, and the Port of New Jersey shut down for a week after Superstorm Sandy, part of the regions significant and persistent post-hurricane supply chain problems. A recent study also found that U.S. railway networks face significant risk from weather disasters, and the past year has demonstrated this. The subway system in New York City flooded twice in the span of two months this summer, and streetcar power cables in Portland snapped during the June heat dome event. There is no guarantee that the states responsible for disbursing the new infrastructure bill funds will deal with these vulnerabilities rather than build new projects.
The lack of guardrails is to some extent a self-inflicted wound. The version of the bill that passed the House of Representatives in August, known as the INVEST Act, would have required funding recipients to consider resilience in their spending decisions, and also required high-emitting states to allocate more resources to greenhouse gas reductions. The bill also employed a fix it first formula that would have prioritized repairing vulnerable infrastructure over building new projects. And it even set aside some money for use by local agencies rather than state transportation departments, which tend to focus on highway projects over municipal transit.
The Senate version of the infrastructure bill, cobbled together by a bipartisan group of lawmakers who by and large do not sit on the relevant committees involving infrastructure, scrapped all these provisions, to the disappointment of House progressives such as Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who had spearheaded the earlier version.
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But even as the final version of the bill funnels unrestricted money toward new road projects, it also allocates unprecedented new sums toward climate adaptation, or the practice of making outdated infrastructure more resilient to climate change. Theres $3 billion in new money, for example, for the Army Corps of Engineers, a public-works agency that builds levees and floodwalls. Theres a billion more for a Federal Emergency Management Agency program that can buy out vulnerable properties in floodplains, and half a billion for programs that help communities retrofit their land to defend against wildfires. This is far more than the federal government has ever spent on such measures.
Indeed, some of the resilience money is specifically earmarked for protecting transportation infrastructure. Theres a whole new program in the bill called PROTECT, which stands for Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-saving Transportation. This program will dole out grants designed to make [surface transportation] assets more resilient to current and future weather events and natural disasters, such as severe storms, flooding, drought, levee and dam failures, wildfires, and more. This $7 billion program could fund everything from tidal gates to culvert upgrades. The bill also amends the statute for the National Highway Performance Program to allow states to spend highway dollars on such resilience efforts, though it caps the proportion of that spending at 15 percent of a states annual funding.
In other words, the bill seems to be operating at cross-purposes when it comes to how we should spend money on infrastructure. It allocates $110 billion for new highway and road projects, but only $7 billion to fix the climate vulnerabilities of existing road projects. Places like Stillwright Point fall somewhere in between the two tranches of money, and may not benefit from either of them. The neighborhood is a perfect candidate for new road funding, but state officials are likely to spend that funding on new highways and expansions rather than repairs, which will force the Keys to compete for the smaller pot of resilience money.
Its still early in the disbursement process, of course, and theres no way to know yet what states will choose to do with all this new money. Given the political incentives for local officials to cut ribbons and stick ceremonial shovels into shiny new projects, though, its a safe bet that much of the funding will go toward new construction, rather than rehabilitating and protecting existing infrastructure. Nor are most funded projects likely to take into consideration the full scope of future climate impacts. In some places, such as North Carolinas tourist-heavy Outer Banks, the need for climate adaptation may dovetail with the whims of state decision-makers. But in other places, like the flood-prone Eastwick neighborhood of Philadelphia, new money will be much harder to come by. The compartmentalized structure of the bill makes it impossible to say what its ultimate impact on climate preparedness will be.
This dichotomy highlights the need for a coordinated strategy on climate change, one that incorporates all federal agencies and extends to all major legislation. Lawmakers have begun to wake up to the need for large investments in climate mitigation and adaptation, but it will be difficult if not impossible to make progress on these issues without coordinated federal planning. As long as Congress and the Biden administration treat climate change as a niche issue, one that is severable from other issues like highway infrastructure, the nations climate readiness will be inconsistent at best.