Climate Change and Infrastructure

As we rebuild our state’s infrastructure, we need to think about doing it right the first time.

After that 100-year winter we just came out of — and the potholes it left behind — everyone seems to be talking about infrastructure. Even the state legislature and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce are supporting tax increases to boost road and bridge repairs. While potholes can be annoying, dangerous, and expensive, sinkholes and potential bridge failures are serious stuff, as has been recently reported. President Obama also spoke recently about infrastructure investment as he asks Congress to appropriate additional highway funds.

There has also been a slew of recent news about climate change including a national assessment report and accounts of major melting in the Antarctic. Given all this news, our investments in infrastructure should take climate change into account. Here in Michigan, we know about freeze-thaw and the havoc it can wreak on our roads and bridges. With weather likely becoming less predictable and more extreme, as we rebuild our state’s infrastructure, we certainly need to think about doing it right the first time, including:

  • Designing tougher, more resilient, lower maintenance roadways, bridges, facilities, and roadsides;
  • Incorporating materials that will perform more consistently in weather extremes;
  • Better controls of runoff including pavement redesign and strengthening drain, river and stream banks, and ditches to prevent erosion;
  • Changes in roadside vegetation to ensure survival and water uptake during floods as well as drought and erosion resiliency;
  • Larger capacity pumps/pump stations to prevent freeway flooding; and
  • Better sewer and water lines to prevent failures as we experience more freeze-thaw, deeper frosts, and drought conditions.

While the east and west coasts are expected to take the biggest climate-based hit (think Katrina, Sandy, and California droughts and wildfires) drought, higher temperatures, and stronger storm events threaten our infrastructure as well and we have already seen Great Lakes levels impact shipping and commerce. A recent government report discussed the likely impacts on energy infrastructure including:

  • Increased demands for electricity;
  • Greater stress on the grid as we experience stronger storms; and
  • Power plants’ vulnerability to water shortages.

From roads to utility lines and water lines and sewers, we are on the cusp of a brave new world. I, for one, think that if we are about to invest billions in putting Michigan back together after decades of neglect, we ought to do it with our eyes on the future and do it right this time. If that costs more, it will be worth it in failures and crises avoided down the road and will provide a base from which Michigan’s economy can grow. Our elected officials must rise to meet their responsibility to fund this core governmental function and to do it right.