Thoughts on the need for ‘Context-sensitive’ Resilience

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Issues and consequences that extend beyond jurisdictional or functional boundaries should be considered when formulating policies, programs, and practices to improve the resilience of transportation infrastructure.

Recent increases in planning activities to address the resilience of transportation infrastructure in withstanding extreme weather and adapting to the long-term impacts of changing climate are, indeed, welcome trends. Planning and decision-making for improving resilience fit well with asset management and risk management practices that are rapidly taking hold in the transportation community. These efforts typically employ systematic, rational approaches to weighing the risks and consequences associated with weather and climatic-related events and trends, and in assessing potential measures to mitigate impacts.

It is to be expected that the foremost concerns among transportation agencies will center upon the transportation assets and services for which they have primary responsibility. However, there are associated questions and concerns that are often afforded insufficient attention which involve whether resiliency planning and decision-making by an individual agency have adequately considered and vetted “external” issues - issues whose overall significance may well equate to, or potentially exceed, those involving an agency’s own assets and services, but whose jurisdictional or functional limits extend beyond an agency’s purview. Here are a few examples, posed as questions that deserve some degree of attention:

  • Are communities or facilities whose vital access would be protected through investments in transportation resilience themselves likely to be survivable and sustainable given the severity of extreme weather and climatic impacts for which the transportation adaptive measures are designed?
  • Where the resilience of transportation links (which are essential for access to developed areas) is involved, are commensurate measures being planned for other vital infrastructure serving those areas that are essential to the viability of these areas (stormwater management and flood controls, fresh water supply, sanitary sewer lines and wastewater treatment, electric power and telecommunications lines, internal roads and streets, etc.)?
  • Are decisions on whether and how to invest in the resilience of strategically important facilities adequately considering the benefits and potential impacts to regions and locales beyond the jurisdiction of the transportation agency making those decisions? For example, for arterial highways traversing a small “corner” of a jurisdiction whose economy and well-being are only marginally affected by that facility, but where major impacts would occur in adjacent jurisdictions from any disruption in service, how is the “home jurisdiction” to consider the relative resilience priority of that facility when resources are scarce and the potential benefits accrue to “others”?
  • Are more comprehensive solutions available when considered on a larger geographic scale which might obviate the need for a multitude of less efficient and less cost effective individual solutions? For example, could a Netherlands-scale system of levees and flood control systems protecting an entire region from sea level rise and storm surges, though very costly, turn out to be more cost effective than the multitude of measures by individual entities and jurisdictions that might otherwise be necessary?

These questions indicate the need for context-sensitivity when formulating policies, programs, and practices focused on improving the resilience of transportation infrastructure. Agencies must consider issues and consequences that extend beyond narrowly defined jurisdictional or functional boundaries, which the forces of nature do not respect.

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