FHWA Issues PROTECT Formula Program Guidance

The Federal Highway Administration issued guidance on July 29 for a new $7.3 billion in formula funding created by the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act or IIJA enacted in November 2021 to help states and local communities better prepare for and respond to extreme weather events such as wildfires and flooding.

[Above photo by the KYTC]

The Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-Saving Transportation or “PROTECT” program provides funding over five years to help states focus on resilience planning, making resilience improvements to existing transportation assets and evacuation routes, and addressing at-risk highway infrastructure. 

In general, eligible projects include highway and transit projects, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and port facilities including those that help improve evacuations or disaster relief. States are encouraged to work with regional and local partner organizations to prioritize transportation and emergency response improvements, as well as address vulnerabilities, noted Stephanie Pollack, deputy administrator for the Federal Highway Administration.

“We see the effects of climate change and extreme weather play out across the country every week, with extreme temperatures and rainfall and resulting flooding and wildfires that damage and in some cases destroy roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure,” she said in a statement. “The PROTECT Formula Program will help make transportation infrastructure more resilient to current and future weather events and at the same time make communities safer during these events.”

FHWA said eligible resilience improvements could involve adapting existing transportation infrastructure or new construction to keep communities safe by bolstering infrastructure’s ability to withstand extreme weather events and other physical hazards that are becoming more common and intense. Eligible project choices may include the use of natural or green infrastructure that acts as a “buffer” against future storm surges and provide flood protection, as well as aquatic ecosystem restoration.

PROTECT projects can also help improve the resilience of transportation networks that serve traditionally underserved and underrepresented communities, particularly during natural disasters and evacuations, the agency noted.
FHWA added that its new guidance applies to the PROTECT formula program only, with the agency planning to release a notice of funding opportunity for the program’s discretionary grant initiative later this year.

State departments of transportation consider formula funding to be a critical aspect of national efforts to improve infrastructure resiliency.

Edwin Sniffen, deputy director of highways for the Hawaii Department of Transportation, highlighted that viewpoint in a Senate Committee on Appropriations hearing in May 2021.

Sniffen – who also serves as chair of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Committee on Transportation System Security and Resilience – said that traditional formula funding processes play a key role in helping states implement resiliency plans.

“When considering funding for resilience, the current core formula program eligibility could be expanded to consider resilience improvements,” he said. “Or formula funding could be set aside to focus on resilience-related planning, coordination, and evacuation; or, a discretionary grant program for adaptation strategies could be established.”

Sniffen added that additional funding and an expedited project delivery process would “greatly aid” getting more resilience initiatives out of the theoretical stages and into practice on the nation’s streets, bridges, runways, and harbors.

“The Hawaii DOT is currently approaching building resilience into our systems using a variety of approaches, including pursuing green infrastructure such as carbon mineralized concrete and adding recycled plastics to asphalt mixes,” he noted. “Investing in resilient infrastructure on a federal level will enable us and other transportation agencies to implement better and greener infrastructure.”

Maine DOT Issues Infrastructure Protection Grants

The Maine Department of Transportation recently awarded $20 million in grants to 13 local infrastructure projects to improve local resilience against climate effects such as flooding, rising sea levels, and extreme storms.

[Above photo by the Maine DOT]

That funding comes from a Maine Infrastructure Adaptation Fund established by Governor Janet Mills (D) in December 2021 to help municipalities protect vital infrastructure from the effects of climate change.

“Climate change is impacting nearly every facet of our lives, and Maine communities are on the front lines,” explained Gov. Mills in a statement.

“These investments will help municipalities across the state strengthen their infrastructure to better deal with the impacts of climate change, improving the safety of their towns and the Maine people who call them home,” she said.

“The effects of climate change present significant challenges for our vulnerable infrastructure,” added Bruce Van Note, commissioner of the Maine DOT.

“Our team, led by Chief Engineer Joyce Taylor, has been working with other agencies and municipalities to help find ways to mitigate these impacts,” he said. “The resources provided by the Maine Infrastructure Adaptation Fund will help make real differences in these communities.”

That fund is part of the Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan approved by the state legislature that is investing nearly $1 billion issued to Maine from the American Rescue Plan – enacted in March 2021 – to “improve the lives of Maine people and families, help businesses, create good-paying jobs, and build an economy poised for future prosperity.”

It draws heavily on recommendations from the Governor’s Economic Recovery Committee and the State’s 10-Year Economic Development Strategy, the agency said, “transforming them into real action to improve the lives of Maine people and strengthen the economy.”

Minnesota DOT Works to ‘Rejuvenate’ Live Snow Fences

The Minnesota Department of Transportation plans to “rejuvenate” seven so-called “living snow fences” in southwest Minnesota as part of a month-long effort to ensure the 20-year-old plantings can survive for another two decades.

[Above photo by the Minnesota DOT]

The agency noted that a “living snow fence” is comprised of trees, shrubs, native grasses, and/or wildflowers to trap snow as it blows across fields, piling it up before it reaches a bridge or roadway.

“Rejuvenation” work includes pruning healthy trees while removing and replacing any dead trees and shrubs. The agency noted it schedules such work on living snow fences between March and April specifically to reduce interference with the state’s bat and bird populations.

“A living snow fence is more than landscaping and highway beautification, it serves a purpose,” explained Dan Gullickson, Minnesota DOT’s blowing snow control shared services program supervisor, in a statement.

“We use nature to control blowing snow and rejuvenating these living snow fence sites will safeguard the health and vitality of the plantings,” he added.

The Minnesota DOT said living snow fences offer multiple infrastructure benefits, including:

  • Prevent the formation of large snowdrifts and icing on roads.
  • Improve motorist visibility by reducing whiteout conditions due to blowing snow.
  • Control soil erosion and reduce spring flooding.
  • Lessen environmental impact by reducing the need to use salt on the roads during winter.

Alaska Budget Contains Ice Road Maintenance Funds

The fiscal year 2023 state budget proposed by Governor Michael Dunleavy (R) contains maintenance funding for the Dick Nash Memorial ice road that will help tribal transportation departments maintain the frozen Kuskokwim for travel in the 2022/2023 winter season.

[Above photo by the Alaska DOT&PF]

By contrast, in 2021, contributions from community stakeholders covered half of the ice road’s maintenance costs. However, as heating oil delivery and diesel costs are now over $6 per gallon in the region – and the state is experiencing a funding surplus based in part on high oil prices – Governor Dunleavy said in a statement that he believes it is “only right” to provide community relief where possible.

That is why, in addition to the proposed funding in his FY 2023 budget, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities plans to recover any remaining maintenance costs via federal surface transportation funding during the 2022/2023 winter season, Gov. Dunleavy said.

The Kuskokwim ice road – which can stretch up to 300 miles long – serves 17 villages and helps Alaskan rural communities move goods and services during winter months. They are a safe alternative when poor weather prevents airplanes from flying, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, and proved an efficient way to distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

Alaska DOT&PF

Maintaining ice roads goes beyond plowing snow and placing reflectors. For example, the ice road crew serving the Village of Napaimute has developed a cell phone application to measure ice thickness. That application integrates ice-penetrating radar with traditional Native knowledge and local observations into an easy-to-access cell phone data format.

“I had the opportunity to travel the Kuskokwim Ice Road for the first time on a recent visit to the Villages of Napakiak and Napaskiak,” the governor said. “All those hundreds of miles of drivable ice are truly an Alaskan feat … and I heard from many residents about the importance of the road during the winter months for health, safety, commerce, and recreation. I’m glad we have identified funding to cover this expense from existing authorities.”

Reports Highlight Growing Federal Focus on Resiliency

A pair of reports – one from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the other from the Government Accounting Office – highlight the increased focus the federal government is placing on climate change and resiliency within transportation infrastructure projects.

[Above photo by the Illinois DOT]

USDOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg noted in a statement that his agency’s new 26-page Climate Action Plan “will help ensure that our transportation infrastructure, policies, and programs will be more resilient to the climate impacts already facing our country.”

That plan calls for USDOT to incorporate resilience factors into its grant-making programs, enhance resilience through the project planning and development process, and improve research on resilience. That plan also calls for USDOT to “ensure resiliency” of its facilities and operational assets while also ensuring the availability of “climate-ready services and supplies.”

Meanwhile, the GAO issued a report in late September that offered 10 options to “further enhance the climate resilience of federally funded roads” via several resiliency initiatives.

However, GAO did note in its report that such initiatives could create unintended difficulties. For example, adding climate resilience requirements to formula grant programs could compel action but complicate states’ efforts to use federal funds, the agency said.

Despite that, GAO’s report stressed that U.S. transportation infrastructure needs resiliency improvements to ward off the potentially costly impacts of climate change.

“If U.S. roads aren’t built to withstand changes in the climate, they may be unsafe routes for emergency evacuations and expensive to fix after a disaster,” GAO said in its report. “Climate-related damages to paved roads may cost up to $20 billion annually by the end of the century.”

Many state departments of transportation are already incorporating more resiliency elements into their transportation projects to ward off the climate impacts noted by GAO.

For example, Ed Sniffen – deputy director for highways at the Hawaii Department of Transportation – noted that his agency views “resilience” as a way to not only make infrastructure more robust and last longer, but save money as well.

“We’re making sure resiliency is built right into our project planning processes,” he explained during a panel discussion at the 2021 virtual American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Washington Briefing in March.

“But we also view it as a way to save on cost. For example, on one project, instead of re-stabilizing slope prone to rockfalls, we extended a tunnel to better protect the road,” Sniffen said. “That cost us $20 million versus $150 million to stabilize the slope.”

Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, stressed that each state needs to look at the specific severe weather events that affect their areas so they can tailor infrastructure designs appropriately to maximize resilience.

Where Minnesota is concerned, she said her agency also often considers a “step back” where infrastructure is concerned – for example re-routing low volume roads away from areas prone to flooding rather than rebuild them.

“It is not always about building back better with infrastructure,” Anderson Kelliher said. “Often we need to plan whether it should be there in that location in the first place. That’s why we are really trying to pilot using ‘climate resilience’ in our corridor plans and how to support emergency repairs going forward.”

TRB Report: Include Resilience in Project Benefit-Cost Analysis

A new report issued by the Transportation Research Board calls on the U.S. Department of Transportation to include resilience factors within the benefit-cost analysis or BCA for infrastructure project justifications.

[Above photo by the Ohio DOT]

TRB’s report – entitled Investing in Transportation Resilience: A Framework for Informed Choices –  also recommends that resilience be measured and assessed using an “analytic framework” that incorporates detailed inventories of existing and planned assets, such as roads, runways, bridges, docks, and rail lines. It also seeks to include resilience within assessments of the characteristics and likelihood of future natural hazards, along with predictions of the vulnerability of the assets and their critical functions to those hazards.

[Editor’s note: In a related effort, the U.S. General Accounting Office recently issued a “Disaster Resilience Framework” to serve as an analytical guide for federal actions aimed at promoting resilience to natural disasters and changes in the climate across many policy areas, including transportation.]

The report – sponsored by USDOT and undertaken by the Transportation Resilience Metrics Committee – recommends that Congress fund a further study to define the types of data that transportation agencies need for resilience analysis, identify potential sources for this data, and explore how to make that data “more suitable” for analysis.

“Storms, floods, droughts, and other natural hazards are combining with sea-level rise and other effects of climate change to disrupt the functioning of the nation’s transportations systems,” said Joseph Schofer, professor of civil and environmental engineering and associate dean at Northwestern University, in a statement.

“Investing in resilience will require us to make carefully considered choices about how we spend money today to generate benefits that may not be realized until long into the future,” added Schofer, who authored TRB’s report.

The report also stressed that to make resilience a “routine and deliberate element” of transportation investments, Congress should consider requiring all federally funded projects involving long-lived assets to undergo “well-defined” resilience assessments that account for the risks from natural disasters and changing climate conditions.

State departments of transportation are also ramping up their focus on resilience strategies.

For example, a panel of state DOT executives and managers – as well as a team leader from the Federal Highway Administration – shared their insights on infrastructure resilience via a peer exchange during the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials 2021 virtual spring meeting in May.

“We are seeing events such as wildfires, flooding, and hurricanes becoming more extreme and occurring more often,” explained Edwin Sniffen, deputy director of highways for the Hawaii Department of Transportation. “We are also seeing more ‘man-made’ issues, too, such as cybersecurity, terrorist attacks, and the like. So it is super important to make our [infrastructure] systems more resilient.”

Sniffen also stressed that formula funding mechanisms are critical to building more resilience into the nation’s transportation system during a hearing on May 13 before the Senate Committee on Appropriations. “When considering funding for resilience, the current core formula program eligibility could be expanded to consider resilience improvements,” he said during his testimony. “Or formula funding could be set aside to focus on resilience-related planning, coordination, and evacuation; or, a discretionary grant program for adaptation strategies could be established. [However] AASHTO generally recommends avoiding new plans, programs, and analysis processes as this increases cost and burden to state DOTs.”

State DOTs Bracing for Highly Active Hurricane Season

As forecasters predict a particularly active hurricane season for 2021, state departments of transportation from Texas to New Jersey are preparing for worst-case scenarios to help citizens get out of town if a big storm ends up heading their way.

[Above photo by the Louisiana DOTD]

The Atlantic hurricane season began on June 1 and lasts through November 30. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center predicts a “likely range” of six to 10 hurricanes with winds of at least 74 miles-per-hour to form this year, with three to five major hurricanes with wind speeds of at least 111 mph developing as well.

Even relatively “minor” hurricanes can cause significant damage, especially to transportation systems, as the impact of Hurricane Sally – which struck the Alabama and Florida border in September 2020 – demonstrates.

Five hurricanes made landfall in Louisiana in 2020, prompting evacuations ahead of the storms and road closures in their aftermaths. To ensure quick evacuation of citizens from low-lying, flood-prone areas ahead of such storms, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has a longstanding partnership with the Mississippi Department of Transportation to activate contraflow operations for removing people from New Orleans and coastal areas rapidly.

“The pinnacle of our cooperative efforts come out during an emergency evacuation,” Louisiana DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson explained. “This region has a very cooperative history. We were in Beaumont (Texas) last year after one of the hurricanes, and we brought in personnel from the Tennessee DOT to help us. We all help each other as the circumstances warrant.”

Photo by Louisiana DOTD

When activated, the Southeast Louisiana Evacuation Plan calls for the Louisiana DOTD and Louisiana State Police to reverse traffic on the southbound lanes on Interstates 55 and 59. Once traffic reaches the Mississippi state line, the Mississippi DOT takes over traffic control and guides the combined eight lanes of traffic well into the heart of Mississippi.

The Mississippi DOT held a contraflow drill on June 3 to practice moving equipment into place and communicating with each other along the 86 combined miles of “contraflowed” interstate lanes.

“We go through all the motions except actually closing the exits on the interstates,” said Jas Smith, Mississippi DOT’s communications director. “The intention is to quickly evacuate the New Orleans and coastal residents. We want to get them out as quickly as possible.”

The Alabama Department of Transportation also has an interstate contraflow plan ready to go during daylight hours, according to Tony Harris, the agency’s media and community relations bureau chief.

“We only contraflow Interstate 65, north of Mobile, to Montgomery,” Harris explained. “We have a deployment rehearsal where we do everything but stop traffic. It’s like a military operation with about 120 defined steps and procedures.”

The South Carolina Department of Transportation recently released an animated video that explains how its intrastate contraflow works on Interstate 26 from Charleston to Columbia.

Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Transportation recently added several new features to its 511 site along with a new mobile application to assist motorists during hurricane evacuations.

States even as far north as New Jersey are holding evacuation drills “to practice and refine response activities in the event of a major hurricane,” according to a news release from the New Jersey Department of Transportation. “This annual drill is to practice a worst-case scenario in which New Jersey shore communities would need to be evacuated in a short period of time due to a hurricane or other natural disaster,” noted Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the New Jersey DOT’s commissioner. “This gives crews from the New Jersey DOT, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, and the South Jersey Transit Authority, along with the State Police, an opportunity to test our plans and make sure our emergency personnel are able to quickly and efficiently get people out of harm’s way.”

Georgia DOT Deploys ‘Lessons Learned’ for 2021 Hurricane Season

The Georgia Department of Transportation’s state maintenance office is tapping into five years’ worth of “lessons learned” to help fine-tune its storm response capabilities ahead of the 2021 Atlantic Hurricane Season – which lasts from June 1 through November 30.

[Above photo by the Georgia DOT]

“Over the last five years, after each weather or emergency event, Georgia DOT conducted after action reviews to address key takeaways, identify gaps in operations and brainstorm best practices for moving forward,” explained Larry Barnes, Georgia DOT’s assistant state maintenance engineer of emergency operations, in a statement.

“This effort has allowed us to continue to build up resources and develop more effective weather and emergency response plans to ensure that we are able to clear roads and restore mobility to Georgians as efficiently and safely as possible,” he said.

Photo by the Georgia DOT

Some of the storm response tactics developed from those takeaways include: 

  • Each of Georgia DOT’s seven districts now features a “Chainsaw and Emergency Response” trailer stocked and ready to go for debris removal operations. 
  • A hurricane gate contract for continued maintenance on all gates statewide to ensure they are ready for contraflow operations, if needed. 
  • Upgrading the agency’s WebEOC system – originally deployed in 2015 and used by its emergency operation center – to improve incident management, resource tracking, and mapping capabilities.
  • Securing debris clean-up contractors to clear both state routes and interstates post disaster, allowing Georgia DOT forces to work more efficiently and to provide off-system assistance to counties and local municipalities who request it. 
  • Improved communications through Sonims: rugged mobile devices that more robust communication capability for in-field teams during disaster recovery operations. Sonims can also track where crews have been working resulting in more efficient clean up, the Georgia DOT said. 
  • Increasing the number of mobile message boards, barrels, and cones available for hurricane-response needs.

The Georgia DOT added that, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 2021 hurricane season is expected to be “above average” with an anticipated 13 to 20 named storms, six to 10 hurricanes, and three to five “major” hurricanes –defined as Category 3 or greater – predicted to develop over the next six months.

Pew Trust: How Flooding Impacts Maryland’s Transportation System

A recent study indicates that major flooding occurring outside designated flood zones is significantly affecting Maryland’s highways, bridges, tunnels, and other roadways. As a result, such flooding “interrupts daily life; delaying or blocking passage of emergency response vehicles and people trying to get to work or school.”

[Above photo by Jay Bock, Flickr.]

The study – entitled “Flooding Impacts on Maryland’s Transportation System and Users” by strategic consulting firm ICF with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts — examines how flooding affects nearly 15,000 lane miles of state-maintained roadways or roughly about 20 percent of Maryland’s overall lane mileage. The findings draw from data collected between 2006 and 2020 by the Maryland Department of Transportation.

The report’s researchers reviewed 2,771 flood-related incidents for which geospatial data was available and found that 78 percent occurred outside the 100- or 500-year flood zones mapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Those incidents took place, on average, only about 0.3 miles from the mapped flood areas, but even so, the findings underscore that flooding is not limited to mapped zones.

The report also identified locations along state highways that are especially flood-prone, making them prime targets for infrastructure resilience or relocation investment. Data from the past 15 years shows clusters of flood incidents on state highways, including more than 100 locations with at least five flood events within about 1,000 feet of one another. Seven locations appear to be especially at risk, with at least 30 such incidents among them, the study found.

The report also shows how flooding disrupts travel, causes safety risks, and generates economic productivity losses, among other adverse consequences. Flooding of state-maintained roadways in Maryland accounts for weeks of traffic disruptions annually, averaging 1,582 hours or 66 days per a year. Although most flood-caused lane closures lasted less than four hours, 16 percent of all disruptions lasted longer than 12 hours.

The study found that those incidents affected, on average, more than 480,000 people annually. On top of that, economic impact of lost work time and delayed deliveries cost about $15 million per year in Maryland and totaled more than $230 million during the study period.

Each flood incident resulted in an average of about $80,000 in user delay costs, Pew’s researchers noted – considered “just a fraction” of the fiscal impact because it does not factor in other expenses, such as emergency response and infrastructure repairs.

Hawaii DOT’s Sniffen: Formula Funding Critical for Resilience Efforts

Formula funding mechanisms are critical to building more resilience into the nation’s transportation system, argued Edwin Sniffen (seen above), deputy director of highways for the Hawaii Department of Transportation, during a May 13 Senate Committee on Appropriations.

Appearing before the subcommittee on transportation, housing and urban development, and related agencies, Sniffen said transportation resilience is about “balancing today’s needs with the future and setting the plans and processes so that addressing adaptation is the default.”

That is why, he said, all of Hawaii DOT’s operational divisions have initiated climate adaption studies in response to ongoing and forecasted climate change.

“When your transportation systems are surrounded by water, like ours, climate adaptation is a must. However, I would like to make the argument that climate adaptation is necessary for all, regardless of their geography,” Sniffen explained in his written testimony. Yet simply moving transportation infrastructure out of “harm’s way” is neither the most practical nor economical solution.

“The 2017 ‘Hawaii Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report’ forecasts one meter of sea level rise affecting the Hawaiian Islands by 2100. If we took a traditional approach of relocating transportation facilities, we would be looking at an estimated $30 billion to relocate or elevate state roads and bridges, address impacts to airports, and protect the state’s commercial harbor facilities,” he explained.

That is where resiliency comes into play, Sniffen stressed. 

“I believe that the definition of resilience is critical and should not be related simply to the ability of an asset to not fail during certain events such as a bridge strike or a category-five hurricane,” he emphasized. “Rather, it needs to involve the ability of a state department of transportation to anticipate, plan, and adapt to potential risks; withstand, respond to, or recover when an event occurs; and construct and maintain assets that decrease project vulnerability risks.”

Sniffen – who also serves as chair of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Committee on Transportation System Security and Resilience – said that traditional formula funding processes play a key role helping states implement resiliency plans.

“When considering funding for resilience, the current core formula program eligibility could be expanded to consider resilience improvements,” he said. “Or formula funding could be set aside to focus on resilience-related planning, coordination, and evacuation; or, a discretionary grant program for adaptation strategies could be established. [However] AASHTO generally recommends avoiding new plans, programs, and analysis processes as this increases cost and burden to state DOTs.”

Sniffen added that additional funding and an expedited project delivery process would “greatly aid” getting more resilience initiatives out of the theoretical stages and into practice on the nation’s streets, bridges, runways, and harbors.

“The Hawaii DOT is currently approaching building resilience into our systems using a variety of approaches, including pursuing green infrastructure such as carbon mineralized concrete and adding recycled plastics to asphalt mixes,” he noted. “Investing in resilient infrastructure on a federal level will enable us and other transportation agencies to implement better and greener infrastructure.”