Building Resilience and Sustainability with the BIL
The transportation sector in the United States is facing a “perfect storm” of challenges. The frequency and severity of weather- and climate-related disasters has increased exponentially; in 2022, there were 18 across the United States. The rising tide of disaster has severely impacted or permanently damaged the nation’s transportation infrastructure. What’s more, the transportation sector accounts for the largest share of U.S. carbon emissions—30% of all greenhouse gases at last count—which is likely to perpetuate further climate-driven disasters and damages.
State departments of transportation (DOTs) have an important role to play in the decarbonization efforts of our nation’s mobility networks, as well as the future-proofing of communities across the country. All DOTs must be able to “prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, or more successfully adapt to adverse events,” according to AASHTO, a nonprofit, nonpartisan association designed to foster the development, operation, and maintenance of an integrated national transportation system. A recent AASHTO report urged transportation decision makers to adopt the “triple bottom line” approach to sustainability by evaluating performance on the basis of economic, social, and environmental impacts and allocating equal consideration to these driving forces.
The good news is that DOTs can act today to incorporate resilience and sustainability into the transportation lifecycle by leveraging funding opportunities like those granted through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL).
What funding is available to help prioritize resilience and sustainability?
The PROTECT (Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient and Cost-Saving Transportation) formula program is meant to support governments’ development of resilience improvement plans, community evacuation routes, and protection of at-risk costal transportation infrastructure. These historic investments aim to improve the resilience of transportation infrastructure, helping states and communities prepare for hazards such as wildfires, floods, storms and droughts exacerbated by climate change.
With a combined total of $8.7 billion in funding and grants over a 5-year period, PROTECT offers eligible state DOTs, MPOs, local governments and public authorities the opportunity to fund their highway, transit and port projects via this new program.
The Carbon Reduction Program Grant is a 5-year, $6.4 billion program created to support transportation improvements that result in carbon emission reductions and develop carbon reduction strategies. Funds are administered by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and appropriated to state DOTs by formula. The BIL also requires states to develop and submit a carbon reduction plan to FHWA by November 15, 2023 and must update their approved strategy at least once every four years.
“Local governments are now eligible for the Carbon Reduction Program—which was not the case with the FAST Act—and that opens up opportunities for local governments to go after grants,” says Ben Ritchey, CDM Smith client service leader and technical advisor for grants and funding. With the creation of the BIL, “65% of funds are now suballocated by population for local government-eligible project priorities,” he explains.
As its name suggests, sustainability and climate change are the two main policy drivers of the Carbon Reduction Program. Projects might include plans to support emissions reduction via multimodal access to public transportation and active modes of transport, bus rapid transit (BRT), vehicle electrification, low-carbon fuels and construction materials, infrastructure-based intelligent transportation systems (ITS), nature-based carbon sequestration, rural broadband internet expansion, complete corridors, and energy-efficient lighting and traffic control devices.
By managing our client’s ability to withstand more frequent and extreme weather events, CDM Smith can protect people’s lives and preserve their livelihoods.
CDM Smith’s SustainAlytics provides a data-driven approach to sustainability planning resulting in solutions that consider people, planet and profit effects and promote sustainable investments for our clients.
Local governments are now eligible for the Carbon Reduction Program—which it was not the case with the FAST Act—and opens up opportunities for local governments to go after grants.
Resilience and sustainability: what’s the difference?
While often lumped together during long-range planning discussions, climate resilience and sustainability are not the same thing. Most often, climate resilience is about managing climate impacts like acute disasters (like hurricanes) or chronic challenges (like extended drought conditions). “By managing our clients’ ability to withstand more frequent and extreme weather events, CDM Smith can protect people’s lives and preserve their livelihoods, including their homes, communities and infrastructure,” says Lauren Miller, CDM Smith’s climate resilience practice leader.
Sustainability often refers to how current generations can conserve natural resources and protect global systems for future generations. “When we talk about sustainability, we mean the balance of social, economic and environmental factors to be stewards of our communities, economies, and the environment,” explains CDM Smith’s sustainability discipline leader Melissa Harclerode. "CDM Smith’s SustainAlytics provides a data-driven approach to sustainability planning resulting in solutions that consider people, planet and profit effects and promote sustainable investments for our clients," she adds."CDM Smith’s SustainAlytics provides a data-driven approach to sustainability planning resulting in solutions that consider people, planet and profit effects and promote sustainable investments for our clients," she adds.
Let’s look at the differences through a real-life example. Say, for instance, a city wants to identify options to improve a major corridor along a waterbody. Climate resilient strategies might elevate the road above the predicted water levels of a 100-year floodplain. Sustainable solutions could include emphasizing bike lanes, pedestrian paths and bus lanes while de-emphasizing car lanes, with consideration of environmental stewardship, social equity, and cost efficacy. Sustainable and climate-resilient solutions may look like creating a floodable greenway with bike/pedestrian paths and re-routing car and bus traffic inland and out of the flood zone using low-carbon construction materials and fueled equipment.
These subtle nuances hold the key to developing successful transportation plans and implementing infrastructure improvements. Carbon reduction strategies will need to be resilient to severe weather events, while resilient adaptation measures will need to minimize its carbon footprint and other sustainability impacts in construction, operation and maintenance.
But the most effective plans are ones that tap into the expertise of cross-disciplinary teams: planners, engineers, and subject matter experts which allows DOTs to develop more holistic planning approaches and incorporate resilience and sustainability into all of their carbon reduction activities. Examples include maximizing benefits to disadvantaged communities and minimizing natural resource use, aligning with regional and federal policies, and integrating projected climate change impacts and severe weather events into statewide planning efforts.
No matter how states ultimately decide to capitalize on the federal funding coming from the BIL, the long-term investment dollars earmarked for carbon reduction and resilience are a win-win for the transportation industry, the communities we live in, and our future generations