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Climate Change Adaptation Guide for Transportation Systems Management, Operations, and Maintenance

1. Introduction to this Guide

Ensuring safety, reliability, and mobility guides the functioning of department of transportation (DOT) transportation systems management and operations (TSMO) and maintenance programs around the country. With the infrastructure mostly built out, and in many cases reaching the end of its lifespan, the emphasis on TSMO and maintenance has continued to grow at both State and local levels.

Transportation agencies have made significant advances in mainstreaming TSMO and maintenance into their core business processes over the last decade. Investments in technology and systems for traffic monitoring and management, traffic incident management, and to provide traveler information have supported the capability of agencies to monitor, respond to, and communicate conditions to travelers. Similar improvements in maintenance management have occurred with use of material management systems, improved maintenance and construction strategies, and more robust asset management techniques.

Climate change poses a risk to continuing improvements in this area and threatens to erode the public trust in a safe, reliable infrastructure.1 DOTs are already observing and responding to the impacts of climate change. Infrequent but extreme weather events (e.g., floods, hurricanes, Southern snowfalls) are becoming more frequent, and long-term climatological trends are slowly but inexorably changing how transportation systems will need to be planned, designed, operated, and maintained.2

TSMO and Maintenance and Climate Change

State DOT and Maintenance Programs are vulnerable to climate change. Climate change increases uncertainty around planning for extreme weather events, since the past is no longer a reliable predictor of the future. Climate changes could result in:

  • Loss of roadway capacity.
  • Loss of alternative routes.
  • Loss of situational awareness (due to power/communications outages).
  • Inability to evacuate.
  • Loss of service life (due to faster deterioration).
  • Increased safety risk.
  • Loss of economic productivity.
  • Reduced mobility.

Climate change risks are as yet not well-understood by TSMO and maintenance groups. Most of the discussion around climate risks has been at a long-term planning level or from an infrastructure design standpoint. Consequently, adapting to climate change is still new to the operating divisions within the DOT. Many agencies are, nevertheless, finding that the approaches and practices that made them successful operators and maintainers of facilities are not adequate—or at least need to be revisited—with this change in climate. More frequent events, unusual phenomenon, and changes in long-standing patterns combined with steadily increasing funding and workforce pressures put agencies at a crucial juncture on how to plan for effective operations and maintenance.

Incorporating climate change considerations into how agencies plan and execute their TSMO and maintenance programs helps the agency become more resilient to unanticipated shocks to the system. Adjustments to TSMO and maintenance programs—ranging from minor to major changes—can help to minimize current and future risks to effective maintenance and operations.

This guide provides information and resources to help DOT TSMO and maintenance staff incorporate climate change into their planning and ongoing activities. It will assist State DOTs and other transportation agencies to understand the risks that climate change poses and actions that can help reduce those risks. Although there is continually new information emerging about anticipated risks and strategies to address them, there is sufficient information to begin a more concerted effort to evaluate programs and begin to make or plan to make adjustments today.

Examples of frequent questions from TSMO and Maintenance program managers: Over the last 20 years, we have gotten really good at managing winter storms. We will deal with whatever nature throws as us. Do I need to plan for climate change? My last few summers have resulted in a lot of delays in construction due to the heat. Should I change how I bid out my projects? Over the last 20 years, we’ve never had an ice storm, and I don’t typically budget for ice removal equipment. We got one last year. Should I invest? My maintenance budgets are typically insufficient, and I end up going over each year. How can I plan ahead and better use my limited resources? We worked well together during Hurricane Sandy, but there were still a lot of challenges. What will help us be better prepared?
Figure 1. Illustration. Frequent Questions from Transportation TSMO and Maintenance Program Managers.

Venn diagram shows how responsibilities overlap among maintenance, emergency management, and transportation systems management and operations activities.
Figure 2. Graph. Overlapping Responsibilities of Different Transportation Agency Offices.

A. Who Should Use this Guide?

This guide is meant for practitioners involved in the day-to-day management, operations, and maintenance of surface transportation systems at State and local agencies. Climate change will affect different offices and their varying responsibilities in different ways. As shown below in Figure 1, some responsibilities among this staff are also overlapping and will require coordination. For example, DOT emergency management staff and TSMO staff need to coordinate during an emergency to provide accurate and up-to-date traveler information. In some DOTs, staff may serve both a TSMO and maintenance function. All staff might have a role in major emergencies. In a majority of functional areas, TSMO and maintenance depends on the collaboration between multiple agencies.

Unless otherwise specified, the content in the guide is applicable to all:

  • State and local DOT TSMO and maintenance managers.
  • State and local DOT planning staff.
  • Metropolitan planning organization (MPO) staff.
  • State and local DOT emergency management staff.

B. How Will this Guide Help Agencies Adapt?

The guide provides the rationale and specific guidance for integrating the capability for climate change adaptation and extreme weather response into TSMO and maintenance programs. It also articulates why doing so will lead to greater sustainability.

In laying out both the need for integration of adaptation into decision making and approaches to do so, this guide also takes a first step toward beginning to establish a consistency of language and practice that will facilitate much-needed collaboration and coordinated action across operating groups within and outside the agency.

The guide provides resources to help agencies:

  • Self-evaluate where practices need to be altered to enhance resiliency to climate change.
  • Identify what changes need to be made.
  • Assess the benefits and co-benefits of making those changes.
  • Map out the changes in capabilities that need to be taken to implement them.

C. What this Guide Does Not Cover

The guide is a first effort to provide guidance on how to adapt TSMO and maintenance programs to climate change. This is a quickly evolving field as evidenced by the rapidly emerging research by top-level national and international agencies (e.g., United Nations, National Academies). There are still many knowledge gaps in terms of adapting practices, including risk management and probabilistic decision making. This document reflects what is known today, but does not answer all the questions that practitioners are certain to raise.

The guide also does not provide guidance on related topics that are better described in other documents (e.g., how to respond during extreme or adverse weather). As mentioned above, this guide is focused on helping agencies do the "up-front" work to prepare for addressing climate change and extreme weather events.

D. How to Use this Guide

The guide provides context, an overview of steps, and specific resources to help DOTs get started to adapt TSMO, maintenance and emergency management programs to climate change. Users may come to the guide with varying levels of familiarity with the content and issues presented herein. It is, thus, designed so that the Table of Contents can be used to jump to any section in the guide where users find content relevant to their specific needs. Of particular note,

  • Section IV describes the general planning components needed to adapt a TSMO and maintenance program for climate change.
  • Blue text boxes throughout the guide (titled "Getting Started") contain specific resources to help agencies get started with adaptation, such as checklists and other resources.
  • Green text boxes throughout the guide (titled "Examples from the Field") provide lessons learned and best practices from around the country. These examples help to illustrate the more general guidance provided and highlight the diversity of issues and approaches to addressing them.

Getting Started

Examples from the Field

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1 M. D. Meyer, E. Rowan, C. Snow, and A. Choate, “Impacts of Extreme Weather on Transportation: National Symposium Summary,” American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), June 29, 2013. Available at [ Return to note 1. ]

2 M. Meyer et al., NCHRP Report 750: Strategic Issues Facing Transportation, Volume 2: Climate Change, Extreme Weather Events, and the Highway System, Washington, DC: Transportation Research Board of the National Academies, 2014. Available at: [ Return to note 2. ]

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