Senate Democrats

The Cost of Inaction: The Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Transportation and Infrastructure

"Climate change will have significant impacts on transportation, affecting the way U.S. transportation professionals plan, design, construct, operate, and maintain infrastructure. Focusing on the problem now should help avoid costly future investments and disruptions to operations."

-National Research Council of the National Academies, March 11, 2008.

Despite his promises to the contrary in the 2000 election, President Bush has followed a voluntary-only approach to climate change that has failed to produce meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, the decision by the Bush Administration to ignore and censor peer-reviewed facts on climate change has unnecessarily politicized an issue of profound moral and scientific importance.

American leadership is needed to address climate change. The longer the wait between now and enactment of policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the greater the chance climate change will be more severe and more expensive to remedy. This Fact Sheet, the second in a series to be published by the Democratic Policy Committee, will highlight the cost that inaction on climate change could have on U.S. transportation and infrastructure.


Climate change poses significant threats to the transportation and infrastructure sectors in the United States. Climate change projections of more extreme temperatures, more intense precipitation, and stronger storms, could push our transportation system outside its design abilities because the system was built to withstand meteorological pressures at a time when weather conditions were more stable.

Rising sea levels and coastal highways.
The predicted rise in sea levels by as much as 23 inches poses a significant threat to our coastal highways. Many coastal highways in low-lying areas provide vital evacuation routes for coastal communities and a significant rise in sea levels would impair most of those routes. An estimated 60,000 miles of coastal highways are already exposed to periodic coastal storm flooding and wave action; several studies of sea level rise project that the "transportation infrastructure in some coastal areas along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic will be permanently inundated sometime in the next century."[1]

Flooding, droughts, and shipping on rivers. Significant changes in climate-including flooding and droughts-will affect shipping on rivers in the United States. Flooding on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in 1993 seriously impeded the transportation of grains and other bulk commodities on barges. Since many railroad tracks are located adjacent to rivers, the ability to transfer shipments from barge to rail would be impaired as well. Drought can also significantly disrupt commercial navigation on rivers where channel depths are dependent upon water-flows. For instance, severe droughts stranded more than 4,000 barges[2] in 1998 (each of these barges can carry up to 52,000 bushels of grain.[3]) At today’s price for a bushel of corn the loss of 4,000 barges would cost the agricultural sector more than $1.2 billion.

Shipping on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. In the northern parts of the contiguous United States, warmer temperatures could lead to increased evaporation on the Great Lakes and reduce the amount of lake ice during the winter. This would lead to a potential drop in lake levels and reduce the shipping capacity of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. The potential drop in lake levels would have a significant impact on the shipping industry. The Great Lakes Carriers Association has estimated that when lake levels are reduced by one inch, a 1,000 foot ship loses 270 tons of cargo capacity.[4] In order to counteract this loss in cargo capacity, shipping companies would either be forced to add more ships to their fleets, which would increase operational costs, or transport less cargo, which would delay shipments and increase the costs of doing business in the region. The Great Lakes region is home to about 70 percent of the steel industry in North America and about half of the heavy manufacturing in the United States.[5]

Rail transportation. Climate change and related flooding could severely disrupt rail shipments. Hurricane Katrina damaged "the New Orleans interchange rail gateway-one of only four major rail crossings of the Mississippi River" and more than 60 percent of CSX’s track mileage between "Mobile and New Orleans and five railroad bridges between Biloxi and New Orleans."[6] The estimated reconstruction costs for CSX totaled about $300 million or approximately one quarter of its annual operating revenue that was available for capital investment.

Frozen private roads and logging. The expected rise in temperatures associated with climate change will increase the time periods during which the frozen dirt roads that logging companies use will become muddier and more difficult to traverse. This is important because logging companies typically employ more people during the winter months when it is easier to transport logs on frozen roads that are more easily navigable. In Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York, almost 100,000 people are employed in forest-based manufacturing jobs that generate annual payrolls of approximately $3 billion.[7]


According to the Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the National Academies, environmental factors are critical to the design of transportation infrastructure.

Conditions such as temperature, freeze-thaw cycles, and duration and intensity of precipitation determine subsurface and foundation designs, the choice of materials, and drainage capacity. A recent TRB report concluded that engineers have "given little thought to whether current design standards are adequate to accommodate climate change."[8]

Increases in hurricane intensity on highways, pipelines, and rail. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that it is likely that future typhoons and hurricanes will be more intense, have stronger periods of peak wind speeds, and increased precipitation. The IPCC has concluded that "in the near term, it is expected that favorable conditions for Atlantic hurricanes will persist for the next decade," and that in the longer term "climate models project an increase in the intensity of strong hurricanes in the twenty-first century."[9]

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita heavily damaged and destroyed critical highway and railroad bridges which necessitated the "rerouting of traffic and placing increased strain on other routes, particularly other rail lines. Barge shipping was halted, as was export grain traffic out of the Port of New Orleans, the nation’s largest export grain port. The pipeline network was shut down, producing shortages of natural gas and petroleum products." The bridges on U.S.90 along the Gulf Coast took two years to repair.

The costs of repairing the major transportation facilities damaged and closed by Hurricanes Katina and Rita total "more than $1.1 billion and the replacement of the I-10 twin Span Bridge between New Orleans and Slidell, Louisiana, will add nearly another $1 billion."[10]

Temperature extremes and highway deterioration. Greater and more prolonged instances of temperature extremes will increase the rate of highway deterioration. For example, extremely hot days, over an extended period of time, could lead to the "rutting of highway pavement and the more rapid breakdown of asphalt seal binders, resulting in cracking, potholing, and bleeding. This, in turn, could damage the structural integrity of the road." Rebuilding these highways will be expensive: according to the Federal Highway Administration, the composite price trend in Federal-Aid for highway construction has increased from 145 in 2001 to 221 in 2006.[11] The "composite price" is the price for the six primary highway construction items: excavation; portland cement concrete pavement; bituminous concrete pavement; reinforcing steel; structural steel; and structural concrete.

Pipelines. More frequent and stronger storms will mean more fracturing and scouring of pipelines as erosion exposes them to the elements. While federal regulations require that pipelines carrying hazardous materials in the lower 48 states be buried with a minimum of three feet of cover and up to five feet near heavily populated areas, stronger storms can erode the soil cover of pipelines and make them susceptible to damage. Additionally, pipelines located within or near ultra-shallow seabed waters could become exposed to sea water from stronger storm waves. According to the Minerals Management Service, approximately 550 pipeline damage reports were filed after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast.[12] The damage to these pipelines helped to account for the more than 1.43 million barrel per day reduction in Gulf of Mexico oil production recorded in the days after Hurricane Katrina (total U.S. Gulf of Mexico oil production is 1.58 million barrels per day).[13][14]

Kinked Pipeline, 2006 Hurricane Pipeline Presentation. Shell Oil Company

Airports and aircraft. Increased temperatures and more frequent periods of extremely high temperatures will place added stress on airport runways and may cause runway buckling. Higher temperatures can also impact aircraft lift ability. Less dense and warmer air during take off reduces the mass of air that flows over aircraft wings; as a result, airplanes need more runway space to take off. This could force airports to extend runways or put additional payload restrictions on aircraft. A recent 1,800 foot runway extension in Flagstaff, Arizona cost approximately $16 million.[15]

[1] Transportation Research Board, "Potential Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Transportation," March 11, 2008.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Food and Agricultural Research Institute, " Grain Transportation and Marketing Channels," June 2004.

[4] New York Times, "Inch by Inch, Great Lakes Shrink, and Cargo Carriers Face Losses," October 22, 2007.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Transportation Research Board, "Potential Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Transportation," March 11, 2008.

[7] Empire State Forest Products Association; Maine Wood Products Association; North East State Foresters Association; Vermont Wood Manufacturers Association; USDA Forest Service-Cooperative Forestry, "Economic Contribution of the Northern Forest,"

[8]Transportation Research Board, "Potential Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Transportation," March 11, 2008.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Federal Highway Administration, "Price Trends for Federal-Aid Highway Construction,"

[12] Minerals Management Service, "Pipeline Damage Assessment from Hurricane Katrina/Rita," March 21, 2007.

[13] Minerals Management Service, "Hurricane Katrina Evacuation and Production Shut-in Statistics Report," August 30, 2005.

[14] Energy Information Administration, "Hurricane Impacts on the U.S. Oil and Natural Gas Markets," December 27, 2007.

[15] Arizona Travel, "Flagstaff Airport Wins Funds for Runway Lengthening," September 26, 2006.