GAO’s 10 Options for Climate-Resilient Roads

GAO’s 10 Options for Climate-Resilient Roads

September 24, 2021  | Jeff Davis

A new report out this week from the U.S. Government Accountability Office examines ways that the Federal Highway Administration could incorporate climate resiliency in its road programs.

An excerpt from the middle of the report (entitled Climate Resilience: Options to Enhance the Resilience of Federally Funded Roads and Reduce Fiscal Exposure) describes how far FHWA has to go in this regard:

FHWA’s efforts to improve the climate resilience of federally funded roads are relatively new, according to FHWA officials. As of July 2021, FHWA officials told us the agency had awarded a total of about $7.2 million in resilience research grant funding to, among other things, help incorporate risk reduction measures into certain projects. In addition, we identified projects in four states—Arizona, Delaware, Maryland, and Washington State—that used FHWA resilience resources and climate projection information to plan or implement physical resilience enhancements on federally funded roads. Given the scale of the federal-aid highway program and the relative newness of resilience efforts, these projects illustrate the potential that FHWA’s current efforts—and climate resilience efforts more broadly—have to help improve the resilience of the nation’s roads. For fiscal years 2016 through 2021, Congress authorized approximately $45 billion per year for the federal-aid highway program. Further, FHWA’s Emergency Relief program was appropriated an average of about $900 million per year for fiscal years 2016 through 2020. A survey of state departments of transportation published in 2018 by the National Academies found that most survey respondents were working in some capacity to incorporate resilience into transportation management programs but were struggling to implement resilience practices into physical road projects.

The report gives ten options that FHWA can consider implementing “to further enhance the climate resiliency of federally funded roads.”GAO helpfully arranged the options as they apply to different areas of FHWA responsibility:

The report then details each option and its pros and cons.

Option 1: Integrate climate resilience into FHWA policy and guidance. FHWA’s current policy document, “Transportation System Preparedness and Resilience to Climate Change and Extreme Weather Events,” dates back to 2014. GAO suggests that “FHWA could do more with policy by establishing a high-level FHWA climate resilience policy that includes, for example, suggested steps or information on standards or best practices for states. FHWA could also provide technical climate resilience guidance on topics such as how states could incorporate climate projection information into road planning and design, or formal guidance on how states should implement laws and regulations relevant to resilience.”

Advantages include clear communication with stakeholders and the ability of FHWA to pull together nationwide best practices; disadvantages include the transitory nature of policy from one political administration to the next and the fact that the needs of states can be so different that any one-size-fits-all document won’t, in fact, fit all.

Option 2: Update design standards. GAO says that FHWA “could support the development of design standards for roads that account for future climate conditions and provide resilience best practices for withstanding these conditions and then incorporate these design standards into regulations.” This would have to be done jointly with existing standard-setting organizations – it’s not the kind of thing that FHWA can do all on its own.

Advantages include the potential for “broad uptake of best practices” and the fact that embedding resilience into the standards would mean that resilience would be incorporated on a project-by-project basis. Disadvantages include the generally slow nature of standard-setting and the need to get cooperation from non-governmental groups like AASHTO, which might be slow for reasons having to do with lack of internal consensus.

Option 3: Provide climate information. More specifically, GAO says that FHWA could “coordinate with other federal agencies or entities to provide locally or regionally downscaled climate information in a format that is accessible and actionable by transportation project managers or engineers.”  GAO admitted it has separate recommendations against this option, having recommended six years ago that the federal government put out climate information on a coordinated national basis and not do it in a way that “was fragmented across individual agencies that use the information in different ways to meet their missions.”

Option 4: Add formula requirements. This is the first of several options that would require action by Congress (which means that it may take until the end of the current reauthorization bill in 2026 to be fully considered, aside from the formula portion of the new PROTECT program in the bipartisan infrastructure bill). GAO specifies, “First, this option could create a new formula program specifically to fund climate resilience improvements with a distribution formula using climate risk factors in each state as criteria. Second, this option could require federally funded road projects to plan for climate resilience as a condition of formula funding. For example, this could be a requirement that project plans and designs account for climate risk and resilience options or that project managers publicly post how forward-looking climate information was used for project planning and design decisions. Third, this option could require that a portion of formula funding be used for climate resilience improvements by setting aside or allocating a portion of formula funds based on, for example, progress toward climate resilience goals.”

The key advantage, as noted by GAO, is that nothing motivates stakeholder action nearly as well as real money. Disadvantages include the traditional state complaint that it would “limit state flexibility and autonomy.” However, a more specific criticism was “that this option would not address vulnerable roads that have many years left in their design life, because formula funds are generally only available to support planning and construction of new roads or roads nearing the end of their design life.”

Option 5: Expand discretionary funding. This option could be done by Congress, and is partially addressed by the discretionary portion of the PROTECT grant program in the pending bipartisan infrastructure bill, or GAO notes that it could also be accomplished for some existing grant programs because “FHWA could add policy preferences and evaluation criteria related to resilience.” The GAO discussion of the advantages and disadvantages is dominated by the traditional state DOT point of view where the states prefer to have as few strings attached to formula money as possible so as not to create mandates, but also don’t want discretionary programs to crowd out formula money. Sos, the report notes that  “discretionary grants typically fund larger projects and would not help states make small, low-cost resilience improvements across all projects. This option also may not match funding with risk because ability to write grants is not correlated with need, according to some stakeholders.” Longstanding GAO complaints about the transparency of GAO’s discretionary grantmaking processes are also reiterated in the report.

Option 6: Set Emergency Relief incentives or conditions. Congress would have to amend the ER statute by “incentivizing pre-disaster resilience actions with, for example, a higher federal share or more flexibility in using federal funds. Receipt of ER funding also could be conditioned on whether states have taken specified pre-disaster resilience actions such as completing a statewide climate risk and resilience assessment.” The chief advantage of this approach would be the strength of the incentive (as noted above, states respond to money and sometimes not much else). On the disadvantage side, some stakeholders told GAO that “conditioning ER funding on pre-disaster resilience actions would be problematic and could present equity issues if ER funding were conditional rather than need-based.” Indeed, given how Congress periodically tops off the ER fund through special appropriations, one can easily see Congress waiving these requirements after major disasters in the interest of rapid relief.

Option 7: Expand Emergency Relief funding eligibility. This one would also have to come from Congress, but GAO says that “The ER program currently allows some damaged or destroyed assets to be repaired or reconstructed with resilience improvements if states can provide documentation that doing so is economically justified. This option could be implemented by making ER funding available for additional post-disaster resilience improvements, such as expanding eligibility to include roads located near damaged, destroyed, or highly vulnerable roads, or expanding eligibility to repair or replace roads to higher standards.”

In the advantage column, stakeholders said that “this option would also use post-disaster momentum to support replacing or repairing roads to higher standards, which could help prevent paying to repair or replace the same road again after the next disaster.”On the downside, this doesn’t add resilience to any road until after it is already damaged or destroyed once, so this is at best a very incomplete solution.

Option 8: Add planning or project requirements. GAO says that “additional climate resilience planning or project requirements could be established, for example, by requiring states to further integrate climate resilience into the project planning or asset management processes or by requiring states to develop climate resilience performance metrics and track progress toward performance goals. According to the report, stakeholders really liked this option, saying things like “it is common sense to require that all state DOTs have a resilience plan in place” and “there are advantages to addressing resilience at the system level—not just asset by asset—and that planning is a way to achieve that.” On the other side, there were the usual complaints about state flexibility and “uneven implementation given varying state planning processes.”

Option 9: Link action to incentives or penalties. GAO suggests that “State climate resilience actions or requirements could be linked to incentives—such as increased federal share or increased flexibility with funding—or penalties—such as withholding or reducing funding, imposing additional oversight or reporting requirements, or withholding project approval.” A change in law by Congress would probably be necessary to do most of this.

The report notes the success that financial penalties have had in getting states to take action on minimum drinking age, seat belt use, and pavement and bridge performance. And stakeholders also said nice things about incentives. On the downside, stakeholders agreed that incentives work slowly, and that penalties “can have unintended consequences, including worsening inequities among states if those with low capacity cannot meet requirements.”

Option 10: Set conditions on compliance with FHWA policy. Per GAO, “This option could be implemented, for example, by conditioning FHWA approval of formula funded projects on compliance with climate resilience policy or formal guidance on implementing laws and regulations relevant to resilience. Pro: “some stakeholders told us that tying funding to resilience actions is the only way to see states take resilience actions. Similarly, some stakeholders said that a policy with expectations or requirements for states may not compel action without enforcement mechanisms or consequences for noncompliance.” Caveat: “Several stakeholders told us that if FHWA were to require compliance, it would first need to very clearly communicate expectations with policy and guidance and then could progress toward withholding funds at some point in the future.”

As is customary with most GAO reports, this one was sent to FHWA for comment prior to publication, but the response (dated September 10) was polite but noncommittal. The USDOT Assistant Secretary for Administration said that “DOT will provide a detailed response to the recommendations within 180 days of the final report’s release.”

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