The view from aerial tour of Hurricane Sandy damage of New Jersey's barrier beaches, Nov. 18, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert)

Building the Right Project: An Engineer’s Perspective on Infrastructure Adaptation to Extreme Weather Events

Dr. Cris B. Liban, P.E., ENV SP, , UCS | May 16, 2018, 3:20 pm EST
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Infrastructure Week 2018 is upon us, and it’s important that we highlight the state of our nation’s infrastructure and why it’s critical to our economy, society, security, and future. So what is the status of our infrastructure?

The National Infrastructure Report Card is issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) every four years. The Report Card offers a comprehensive assessment of our nation’s 16 major infrastructure categories providing information on their conditions and needs, assigning grades and making recommendations to raise those grades. While first issued in 1998, not much has improved. ASCE has yet to give a grade out of the “D” range; in 2017, America’s infrastructure earned a “D+”.

The work to change the depressing state of our infrastructure is daunting, but I try to be calm and take in my unique privilege as a professional engineer to be involved in the many facets of infrastructure and how we need to better plan, design, build, operate, and maintain these critical projects and systems. As an environmental engineer that also has science and policy backgrounds, I am involved in all facets of the infrastructure lifecycle: planning, design, construction, operations, and financing. I also work in the third largest transit agency in the United States and am responsible for the environmental, sustainability, and resiliency efforts associated with the agency’s infrastructure.

Climate change presents engineering challenges

Let’s face it, our infrastructure is crumbling and significant investments are needed to improve our grade. Regardless of your politics, we see evidence of exacerbation of these impacts through the effects of increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events: increasing ambient temperature, higher frequency of high heat days, more extreme flooding and inundation, more intense storms, and greater length of droughts and heat waves. These conditions are now more common; and forget about the impacts across the world, you need not look beyond your neighborhood. While infrastructure is traditionally designed to hold up to rare but expected extreme weather events, these events are no longer rare, and their durations and intensities are now well beyond normal expectations.

As an engineer, I am faced with a new set of design challenges that force me to rethink how infrastructure should be planned, designed, constructed, operated and maintained for conditions that are substantially changing in unpredictable ways. As a scientist, I am struggling to define what information I should use to ensure the infrastructure we build remains useful throughout its expected life, and keeps people safe while enhancing their quality of life. And as a person and global citizen – of Filipino ancestry and having visited many parts of the world – I am humbled and amazed seeing how those who have the least are able to survive the harshest of environments and economic conditions. We need not go far, as many of us who live in the poorest of our American neighborhoods have come to adapt to similar conditions, and chose to survive after hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and droughts. Many of us involved in this conversation about infrastructure have differing life experiences and perceptions.

A multi-disciplinary approach to infrastructure planning

The facts about our deteriorating infrastructure and a future with more weather extremes should make us think very hard about how we as a society will continue to maintain our livelihoods and well-being. A unifying philosophy that brings us all to the table should be the realization that maintenance of the built infrastructure has primarily been a neglected element of society; consequently the cost of less (or even no) action has never been so great and the urgent need to address the compounded issue is now! We should look more closely into how resilient communities do it and learn from them. To design for a resilient future that can handle more extremes, we must upend some engineering paradigms and approach solutions in inclusive, collaborative, multi-disciplinary, and multi-sectoral ways.

As the executive who oversees the implementation of environmental compliance and sustainability at a major public transportation agency, I am immersed in a transportation revolution here in Los Angeles. This revolution goes beyond pure transportation projects, but involves all the things that the transportation system touches or connects. And infrastructure, transportation in particular, touches everything – energy, water, mobility, housing – and is affected by all types of extreme events – heat, droughts, floods, wildfires, and sea level rise.  Because engineers can also be systems thinkers, I get pulled into a variety of situations where not only environmental issues need to be resolved, but other topics are common fare: policy deliberations, energy resiliency, climate change impacts, alternative financing, social equity, fresh food access, electrification, and of course engineering and science, among others. This multi-faceted approach, which also requires people skills, understanding of human behavior and finding common ground, is fundamental to advancing infrastructure solutions that will function under a future with more extremes.

Promising Developments to Integrate Climate Science into Infrastructure Standards

The Climate-Safe Infrastructure Working Group, under the California Department of Natural Resources, is a pioneering effort to foster this needed cross-discipline dialogue by bringing together climate scientists, engineers, architects, and other professionals to discuss how to incorporate climate change impacts into infrastructure. I was appointed as a member of this Working Group, and with my fellow members have been deliberating how to integrate scientific data concerning projected climate change impacts into state infrastructure engineering and develop and make specific recommendations to the California Legislature and the Strategic Growth Council later in 2018.

Our Working Group’s task gets to the core of making a major overhaul in the way infrastructure projects are planned, designed, constructed, and operated. We are grappling with questions on risk and liability, governance, equity, means and methods of construction, and most importantly identification of the gaps from translating science into practice are debated and discussed. How does this information get incorporated into the standards and practices of civil engineering and architecture? How can the workforce, who have been trained to plan, design, build, operate and maintain infrastructure in a certain way, strategically transition to incorporate modifications that account for new and changing environmental conditions, as well as integrate natural infrastructure solutions? How can financial instruments be used to minimize infrastructure risk to public health, safety, and well-being? The experience has reminded me of the community meetings I often lead or attend: seeking input, debating on the solutions, and in the end, gaining consensus on what is best to make infrastructure serve all stakeholders while simultaneously promoting social cohesion and economic development. I anticipate this to be the flavor of our final report.

The disconnect between disciplines and a lack of an integrated approach across jurisdictions is recognized as a problem by many in the engineering and infrastructure fields. Agencies like mine, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro), have navigated through this dilemma by incorporating into our design criteria and specification the requirements to build climate-safe infrastructure based on information we know now.

In addition, the American Society of Civil Engineers has been advancing new approaches to integrate climate science into infrastructure. Under Canon 1 of ASCE’s Code of Ethics, engineers have the obligation to hold “safety, health, and welfare paramount and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties”. ASCE Policy Statements 360 and 418, about climate impacts and the role of civil engineers in sustainability, are key drivers to the execution of this obligation. ASCE’s National Committee on Sustainability (COS) is working on the continued development of a Sustainable Infrastructure Standard as well as an ASCE Policy for infrastructure owners to recognize the value and importance of building sustainable infrastructure. The COS is working hand in hand with the ASCE Committee on Adaptation to a Changing Climate in ensuring infrastructure resiliency and sustainable infrastructure principles and frameworks align with one another.

Investors are listening as well. Here at LA Metro, we are using the revenues generated from the sale of our low carbon fuel standards carbon credits to exclusively invest in carbon emissions reducing strategies, energy conservation and resiliency, renewable energy, and similar projects. We tendered about $500 million in Climate Bond certified Green Bonds in October 2017 for others to invest in our transportation related projects. My invitation to participate in two important symposia on how to finance and make the business case for sustainable infrastructure here in California  in February 2018 and Massachusetts in March 2018 creates a significant degree of personal excitement and inspiration to do more with the financial community to advance climate resilience.

Advancing a new engineering paradigm

There is no other time to do more than now.

Whether we like it or not, infrastructure plays a major role in ensuring that we as a species survive the increasing negative impacts of extreme weather events. But the cost of ignoring infrastructure investments is mounting. More importantly, we need to reassess how we continually value the benefits of a well maintained infrastructure. We need to build the right project as much as we need to build the project right. While I see advances on many fronts, we need more engineers and our partners to step up and take a leadership role in advancing this new paradigm.

Finally, many of these discussions have concentrated on the consideration of the most vulnerable populations or those who are “not in the room” with the professionals. This is not about working to relieve these communities of their burdens but instead all about how we learn from them. With all the tools we have at our disposal, we need to re-think and reassess such tools in the context of how the most vulnerable of communities survive significant stressors. Let’s step-up our active engagement with them for that very reason.

 

Dr. Cris B. Liban, P.E., ENV SP is a professional engineer and a Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers, with a focus on environment and transportation. He has chaired or participated in multiple research panels through his involvement with the National Academies of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board, translating research into policy through his work as an environmental executive and political appointee in federal, state, county, and city governments, currently as the Executive Officer, Environmental Compliance and Sustainability at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He is also the Chair of the National Committee on Sustainability of the American Society of Civil Engineers. More on Dr. Liban’s work here.

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  • kgothier

    A truly “new paradigm” would focus on User Fees, based on level of use and financial benefit, to fund essential services and infrastructure. Because they are all used almost exclusively to produce goods and services, move them to market, manage waste products, and get workers to work 24/7, those who now benefit the most, should pay the most! And they will become even wealthier, by spending money, to make more!!

    Consider adding economists and marketing specialists to your “cross-discipline dialogue,” so we can Go Viral with User Fees, as our best hope for finally improving what the Greatest Generation built to create the largest Middle Class in history, and aptly named Baby Boomers have just continued to ignore…