Like a bridge under troubled waters…DOT Sec. LaHood, will you ease our minds? An open letter


An open letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who has a golden opportunity to leave a remarkable legacy as a cabinet member by tackling two top national priorities – reigniting our economy, and reorienting the transportation sector to reduce its carbon footprint and become more resilient in the face of global climatic disruption.  Our letter asks Sec. LaHood to take bold, swift measures to harmonize the economic and environmental imperatives facing us today by managing the virtual flood of funding now flowing through the Transportation Department to cities and states as part of the “economic stimulus” package in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), and tackling twin climate change challenges:  1) reducing greenhouse gas emissions to help avoid unmanageable climate change impacts, and 2) preparing for inevitable impacts by building projects designed to withstand a climate future that bears little resemblance to that of the past.  The thousands of “shovel-ready” transportation-related projects in the pipeline must be undertaken with climate disruption in mind, else we risk building and repairing roads, bridges, and rail lines that may be under water or compromised in other disruptive and costly ways within several decades, if not sooner. 

post by Anne Polansky

[*With a nod to Simon and Garfunkel’s classic, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”]

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been tasked with distributing $48 billion in economic stimulus package money for improving our highways, airports, transit and rail; he will also have much influence on surface transportation policy in the comprehensive highway reauthorization bill to be taken up this year.  He’s well-positioned, therefore, to significantly influence public policy and help to bring the transportation sector in line with the dual economic and environmental challenges we now face.  CSW is posting an open letter to the Secretary asking him to carefully consider the effect of our nation’s transportation systems on our nation’s overall GHG emissions, and the disruptive effects of climate change on the safety and integrity of our transportation infrastructure.  To fail to consider climate disruption when undertaking major new construction in the transportation sector is to invite future liabilities and risks, some of which could be very costly. 

As background, the stimulus bill provides a total of $48.1 billion for transportation infrastructure projects to be administered by DOT, of which:
•  $ 27.5 billion is for highways and bridges
•  $ 8.4 billion is for transit
•  $ 8 billion is for high speed rail
•  $ 1.3 billion is for Amtrak
•  $ 1.5 billion is for discretionary infrastructure grants
•  $ 1.3 billion is for airports and Federal Aviation Administration facilities and equipment
•  $ 100 million is for shipyards. 

These projects are moving forward at light speed; on April 13, Sec. LaHood announced that the 2000th project had been funded, less than two months after the ARRA was signed into law.  A federal website tracks the expenditure rate. 

Climate Science Watch
Government Accountability Project
1612 K Street, N.W., Suite 1100
Washington, DC 20006

The Honorable Ray LaHood
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Ave., SE
Washington, DC 20590

May 8, 2009

Dear Secretary LaHood:

Our group, Climate Science Watch, holds government officials accountable for applying scientific research and policy analysis with integrity to the crucial task of “avoiding the unmanageable while managing the unavoidable” ecological, societal, and economic impacts of global climatic disruption.  We are a program of the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower advocacy organization.  In addition to our oversight work, we are also providing public policy support and recommendations to the administration and Congress designed to raise national preparedness for global climatic disruption.  It is in this context that we urge you to take swift and decisive action to help ensure that a climate change lens will be applied to the thousands of projects being funded through the Transportation Department. 

While the imperative to take swift and decisive action to stimulate our economy and create jobs is apparent to all, we must also better prepare ourselves for a set of climate conditions promising to bear little resemblance to those of the past by doing all we can to bring down CO2 emissions as a result of fossil fuel combustion, and to build in resiliency to inevitable impacts such as coastal inundation due to sea level rise, weather extremes, altered temperature and precipitation patterns, and the like.  We are concerned that in all the rush to rescue the economy, we are inadvertently inflicting additional damage to our natural environment, which, in turn, will present additional economic challenges.  It is time to turn this negative synergy around.

• The heavy emphasis on high-speed rail and public transportation is laudable; in general, these are more sustainable modes than are personal vehicles and air travel.  Did this stem from a strategic plan for the Department?  If not, would you support developing a strategic plan that addresses how the Department plans to rise to the myriad challenges that global climate change presents?  Such a plan could provide that transportation infrastructure improvement projects should be assessed for their expected “carbon footprint”—i.e. how much will current CO2 emissions either increase or decrease as a result of the project—and that an evaluation of options for minimizing CO2 emissions should be undertaken and all reasonable efforts shall be made to select the lowest carbon option.  In addition, such a plan would acknowledge that it is no longer appropriate to use the climate record of the past to anticipate future climate conditions.  For example, when siting a new road, it will be essential consult the local topographic and elevation maps and data to determine whether or not the road or highway could expect to be under water from increased storm surges several decades from now. 

Finally, consideration must be given to the future need for more and better evacuation routes from high-risk areas such as the Gulf Coast, and the use of distributed, renewable energy sources to provide signage, lighting, and so on.  A study conducted as part of the Bush administration’s Climate Change Science Program, Impacts of Climate Variability and Change on Transportation Systems and Infrastructure—Gulf Coast Study (LINK) looks at how climate change impacts could seriously compromise transportation systems in the Gulf Coast region.  One of the report’s lead authors, Michael Savonis, could be tapped to lead additional studies for other regions of the US, and perhaps even to lead a departmental task force to look at this problem more comprehensively. 

•  DOT’s 100-day progress report mentions that DOT submitted a report to the Council on Environmental Quality on its compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), as required by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  While some have argued that NEPA requirements to conduct environmental impact assessments should be waived for economic stimulus projects so as not to slow them down, we would argue that it is more important than ever to see transportation projects through a climate change lens, and that the assessment process should be streamlined but not bypassed. 

•  When you appear at the National Press Club on May 21 to discuss the economic stimulus package, this would be an excellent opportunity to announce the Department’s approach to these many projects in light of the climate threat. 
These are just a few basic proposals. Much more could be pursued.  We hope we will be seeing some positive developments along these lines under your leadership, and encourage you to reach out to the climate science community for advice and support. 


Rick Piltz, Director

Anne Polansky, Sr. Associate

Climate Science Watch / Government Accountability Project


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