Integrating Resilience into Infrastructure Decision-Making

Making “resilience analysis” a cornerstone of the infrastructure decision-making process is becoming a key focal point for state departments of transportation and federal transportation agencies alike.

[Above photo by AASHTO]

That is the view espoused by a panel of state DOT and federal agency executives convened during the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials 2022 Spring Meeting in New Orleans.

David Sweeney, at podium, with Florida DOT’s Watts seated at left. Photo by AASHTO.

Moderated by David Sweeney, president and CEO of engineering and architectural firm RS&H, the panel explored how “resilience” is becoming a critical factor in extending the overall lifecycle of infrastructure assets while also hardening them against potential damage from both natural and man-made disasters.

“As I think about it, whether it is fire, hurricanes, tornadoes, or other crippling weather events, it is reminder of our fragile existence on this planet,” Sweeney said. “The economic impacts are striking. Since 2004, the federal government has spent over $270 billion on disaster recovery. Yet our communities are no less vulnerable to disasters today. So what actions can we engage in today to make our transportation infrastructure more resilient to such disasters?”

Will Watts, assistant secretary for engineering and operations at the Florida Department of Transportation, pointed to flood resiliency plans implemented by Governor Ron DeSantis (R) in December 2021 – which allocated $270 million for 76 projects statewide – as an example of how Florida is trying to harden its critical infrastructure against disaster damage.

Left to right: Texas DOT’s Williams, Hawaii DOT’s Sniffen, Florida DOT’s Watts. Photo by AASHTO.

“We not only have to identify resiliency issues now but also incorporate resiliency into future projects as well,” he said. “Our policy at Florida DOT is focused on water and how we incorporate issues such as sea level rise and flooding into our project design efforts. We can’t get this done without partners as many transportation projects are interconnected. And those partners include MPOs [metropolitan planning organizations], local governments, and regional groups.”

Marc Williams, executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation, noted that over the past two years the cost and resources the agency devoted to dealing with winter weather events is five times the amount spent by Texas DOT compared to the previous two-year period.

Marc Williams, Photo by TxDOT.

“That really recalibrated us in terms of how we deal with winter weather,” he explained. “This is not just related to winter. We faced Hurricane Harvey three years ago where it made landfall three separate times along the Texas coast. It used to be that we could rely on the size of Texas to pull crews and resources from one part of the state to help in another part of the state. Now everyone is responding at the same time.”

Williams said that is forcing Texas DOT to rethink how it handles logistics and allocations of resources when it comes to weather response. Yet other issues, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and cyberattacks, are also creating similar statewide resiliency issues, he noted.

“That is forcing us to redefine what resiliency means and how we plan for it – and how it affects everything from land use to freight demand,” Williams pointed out. “So all of that is affecting our resiliency planning as well as our ‘lessons learned’ from such events. Going forward, it puts a premium on real-time information and the need to improve our IT infrastructure.”

Ed Sniffen

However, Ed Sniffen, deputy director of highways at the Hawaii Department of Transportation, stressed that while “everyone supports resiliency” as a concept, once the discussion turns to the “opportunity costs” involved, the process of incorporating resiliency into transportation projects becomes more challenging.

“To help us address cost issues, we are putting a framework in place – policies and checklists – to ensure we follow through on our resiliency plans,” he said. “We are also looking at ‘passive’ means to improve resiliency, such as the realignment of roads to avoid areas affected by sea level rise. Because why build a bridge that can last for 100 years if in 50 years it will be underwater?”

A current initiative at Hawaii DOT is creating a data platform to “capture” vulnerability assessments of the state’s transportation system – allowing the agency to “filter out” specific natural and man-made impacts on specific infrastructure assets.

“We are not done with it yet, but within another month or two, we can use this ‘resiliency platform’ to help us make better decisions now and then to measure the impact of our resiliency tactics in the future,” Sniffen said. “The great thing about this resiliency platform is that it will not only help us on the design side but on the operational side as well, in terms of managing our emergency response when disaster strikes.”

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