Tuesday, June 15, 2010

WisDOT: see no global warming, speak no global warming, mitigate no global warming

The I-94 North-South reconstruction and lunatic expansion project is well underway. It's cost is projected by the state to be $1.9 billion, but that is a remarkably and deceptively low figure. It does not take into account, for example, the interest payments the state will have to pay on bonding for the project. It also does not take into account costs that We Energies ratepayers will pay for moving utility infrastructure.

How much will interest and utilities cost us? Don't know -- the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has long believed that interest payments aren't real money, even when they cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars per year. It's likely that WisDOT doesn't even know what it will end up paying in interest -- one of the conveniences of working at the agency is that you get to start projects without having a clue as to how you are going to pay to finish them. If you run short of cash, you just borrow more, or cut highway maintenance, or raise taxes to fill in the gap.

One of the true horror shows of the I-94 North-South project is that WisDOT chose to ignore the impacts of global warming when it was making plans to build it. Yes, WisDOT said, adding an extra lane to the freeway will add to global emissions, but we don't know precisely how much it will add, so we are just going to ignore the matter entirely and propose absolutely nothing to mitigate the consequences of increased global warming.

Now a new study from the Federal Highway Administration shows the impacts of global warming on roads and highways. They are many and mostly negative and the laundry list of potential bad things to come is one helluva strong argument for WisDOT to greatly increase its highway maintenance (and repair) budget. Unfortunately, WisDOT generally is moving in the opposite direction, as illustrated by the emergency Zoo Interchange bridge replacement: do nothing until the bridges are ready to fall down, then spend an extraordinary amount to fix problems that could have been prevented for much less.

The new FHWA publication says the Midwest, including Wisconsin, will likely see much wetter winters and springs:

By far the largest seasonal increase in precipitation is projected to occur during the winter months, with an average increase of 6 to 7% and a likely range of +2 to +12% (USGCRP 2009). Annual mean precipitation in Chicago is projected to experience precipitation increases in line with the regional estimates (Hellmann et al. 2007). Heavy precipitation events are also projected to increase during this time, with the frequency of spring rainfall heavy downpours increasing by almost 15% in Missouri, Illinois, and Minnesota under a high emission scenario (A1Fi) compared with 1961-1990 (Union of Concerned Scientists 2009a). In the next two decades, heavy rains are projected to increase by 66% in St. Paul, 35% in Indianapolis, and 20% in Chicago (Union of Concerned Scientists 2009). These increases are expected to increase flooding and overload many drainage systems (USGCRP 2009).

That is bad news for highways. A jump in the number of heavy precipitation events has these consequences:

  • Increases in weather-related delays and traffic disruptions
  • Increased flooding of evacuation routes
  • Increases in flooding of roadways and tunnels
  • Increases in road washout, landslides, and mudslides that damage roadways
  • Drainage systems likely to be overloaded more frequently and severely, causing backups and street flooding
  • Areas where flooding is already common will face more frequent and severe problems
  • If soil moisture levels become too high, structural integrity of roads, bridges, and tunnels (especially where they are already under stress) could be compromised
  • Standing water may have adverse effects on road base
  • Increased peak streamflow could affect scour rates and influence the size requirement for bridges and culverts

It's worth noting that WisDOT proposed steeper center-to-shoulder grades for the new I-94, which will send more contaminated runoff, faster, on to properties that are closer to the wider freeway.

Changes in seasonal precipitation and stream flow patterns have additional results:

  • Benefits for safety and reduced interruptions if frozen precipitation shifts to rainfall
  • Increased risk of floods, landslides, gradual failures and damage to roads if precipitation changes from snow to rain in winter and spring thaws
  • Increased variation in wet/dry spells and decrease in available moisture may cause road foundations to degrade
  • Degradation, failure, and replacement of road structures due to increases in ground and foundation movement, shrinkage and changes in groundwater
  • Increased maintenance and replacement costs of road infrastructure
  • Short-term loss of public access or increased congestion to sections of road and highway
  • Changes in access to floodplains during construction season and mobilization periods
  • Changes in wetland location and the associated natural protective services that wetlands offer to infrastructure

More very hot days could lead to:

  • Increased thermal expansion of bridge joints and paved surfaces, causing possible degradation
  • Concerns regarding pavement integrity, traffic-related rutting and migration of liquid asphalt, greater need for maintenance of roads and pavement
  • Maintenance and construction costs for roads and bridges; stress on bridge integrity due to temperature expansion of concrete joints, steel, asphalt, protective cladding, coats, and sealants
  • Asphalt degradation, resulting in possible short-term loss of public access or increased congestion of sections of road and highway during repair and replacement
  • Limits on periods of construction activity, and more nighttime work
  • Vehicle overheating and tire degradation

Taken as a package, those are pretty devastating consequences that will cost Wisconsin residents billions of dollars. WisDOT, by embracing projects and politics that maximize the impacts of global warming, will suck up a larger and larger share of overall tax collections to fix what it has wrecked.

On the plus side, from WisDOT's perspective, is this: warmer temperatures mean longer construction seasons for highway builders to wreak more havoc on the rest of us.

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