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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Climate Change and the Transportation Network

Research to Project How Critical Infrastructure will be Impacted in Decades to Come

By Jeff Perlman and Keith Hamas

Karl Vilacoba

Several segments of the boardwalk in Spring Lake, N.J.,

were destroyed when Hurricane Irene made landfall on Aug. 28.

Across the globe, evidence of the impacts of climate change is increasingly well documented in a range of measurements including rising sea levels, increased storm severity, flooding, heat, drought and general variations in weather patterns. The likelihood of these dynamics affecting the built environment is especially alarming in New Jersey—a state whose dense population and heavy travel patterns depend on an abundance of infrastructure in low-lying or coastal areas.

While studies often attempt to address issues such as congestion or safety in the region’s transportation network, the research has largely failed to address how the infrastructure will fare under the impacts of climate change and sea level rise.

The North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority (NJTPA) was one of two agencies nationwide recently awarded a federal grant to conduct a study utilizing a vulnerability and risk assessment framework developed by Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The study’s findings will be used to inform decision-makers with scientific evidence and offer guidance for the best use of transportation capital funds.

Applying the FHWA model will guide the NJTPA through a process of gathering climate change data and projections and determining which critical transportation assets are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Ultimately, the study will paint a picture of how climate change will affect regional transportation infrastructure investments and serve as the basis for future development of statewide climate change adaptation strategies.
The research focuses on two distinct areas: the New Jersey Coastal Study Area and the Central New Jersey Study Area. The analyses will encompass a range of forecasts for the year 2100, including greenhouse gas emissions, temperature, sea levels, storm intensity and precipitation.


The New Jersey Coastal Study Area, extending southward from State Route 440 in Middlesex County to the state’s southernmost tip in Cape May County, was an obvious focus due to its susceptibility to rising sea levels and increased storm intensity. The 548-square mile area is bounded by the Garden State Parkway to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The vital economic activity and growing population within this low-lying coastal region is dependent on the area’s diverse transportation network.

The second zone, the Central New Jersey Study Area, was selected based on its role as a vital transportation corridor connecting some of New Jersey’s heavily populated areas, including New Brunswick, Trenton and Camden. This 520-square mile area meets the coastal study area at the Garden State Parkway and extends southwest along the Delaware River. It encompasses eight counties and is a significant corridor with critical highway and rail infrastructure, including the New Jersey Turnpike, U.S. Route 1 and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

The Climate Change Vulnerability and Risk Assessment project will help decision-makers identify the best ways to prepare for worst-case scenarios within these study areas. For example, in the coastal area analysis, the study will determine “relative sea level rise” combining local land subsidence with projected global sea level rise. The study’s projected impacts will also help inform which infrastructure assets are the most vulnerable to rising sea levels. Modeling a Category 1 hurricane will then determine how sea level rise will exacerbate the impact of storm surges.

However, the threat of climate change is not limited to rising sea levels or increased coastal flooding from storm surges, but also includes the effects of extreme heat, precipitation, drought and changes to the number of frost days. The study will run climate models based on future GHG emissions in order to determine changes in average temperature and precipitation as well as the frequency and severity of heat waves, precipitation and drought for the years 2050 and 2100. The results of this analysis will help transportation officials determine how each piece of infrastructure may be vulnerable to a changing climate, and develop mitigation or countermeasure strategies.

The project is being conducted by a consultant with oversight and input by the NJTPA and several partner agencies, which include the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, NJ Transit and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

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