Region Forward Blog

Adapting to Climate Change in Metro Washington (Part 2)

Sep 29, 2011


Last year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded MWCOG with a “Smart Growth Implementation Assistance” grant to develop a climate change adaptation plan for metropolitan Washington. To help guide the plan’s development the EPA and MWCOG recently held four workshops with local officials focusing on specific sectors likely to be impacted. This is a two part series based on those workshops. Part one focused on the water and building sectors while part two focuses on the transportation and land-use sectors.

Even if we completely stop emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow the emissions of the past 100 years will continue to generate climate change. It’s inevitable. This is simply a fact; it’s not an excuse for inaction. On the contrary we should be working feverishly to dramatically reduce our emissions a goal of Region Forward in order to minimize further impacts. These workshops are based on the reality that at the same time that we need to be fighting climate change we should also be preparing for some of its unavoidable foreseeable effects.

Metropolitan Washington is already seeing some of these effects: the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicates that DC Maryland and Virginia have all seen their average annual temperature increase over the past century (by 0.6°F in VA 1.9°F in MD and 3.3°F in DC); NCPC reports that the Potomac Estuary has experienced a foot of relative sea level rise; the University of Maryland indicates that major weather events in the Mid-Atlantic region have increased significantly (12-20%) over the past century; and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that floods droughts heat waves and record-setting events will continue to increase.

Adapting to these changing conditions requires comprehensive planning. That’s why local jurisdictions are partnering with the EPA to create this adaptation plan. Some of the points of discussion regarding transportation and land use are summarized below:

Metro DC is vulnerable. Because of the region’s proximity to a number of major water bodies metropolitan Washington is vulnerable to the sea level rise impacts of climate change. Officials noted that the Tidal Potomac has risen by about one foot over the last century and that rate is increasing rapidly – by mid-century we may see that level increase by an additional two feet. Adaptation will be crucial in this aspect especially as Alexandria DC Prince George’s County and other jurisdictions pursue waterfront development and park restoration.

Mobility is king. When it comes to the public the loss of mobility is arguably the most frustrating impact of a major storm natural disaster or emergency. As a representative from VDOT remarked extraordinarily lengthy commutes have been along with power outages the main areas of complaint following recent major events (like the snowstorm earlier this year and the recent earthquake).

In a region that has severe congestion on any typical day compressed rush hours during emergencies can lead to all out chaos. This will likely not be solved by simply building more mega roads and bridges. As the VDOT rep noted “all our bridges are jam-packed now but if we build more won’t they simply fill up as well?” Perhaps a more effective solution is incorporating redundancy into the region’s roadway system. For example in the future instead of building major roadway projects (the closure of which can cripple travel in our region) building more small roads that provide a number of connection points will be more effective.

As severe storms and hurricanes become more intense and more frequent as a result of climate change the transportation system must be prepared to handle such events on a more regular basis. With many roads already above capacity alternatives like transit walking biking car/vanpooling and telework must be scaled up. A rep from NCPC noted that although “telework isn’t traditionally considered an element of transportation infrastructure it’s one of the most effective solutions we’ve seen” for maintaining productivity during major storms/events.

Smart Growth as a means and an end. Participants were quick to note that many of the land use and transportation policies considered principles of “smart growth” which are already common practice throughout parts of the region will help metro DC adapt to inevitable climate change impacts. Some examples of such policies include promoting development in existing activity centers rather than at greenfield sites mainstreaming green building standards prohibiting development in key environmental resource areas increasing mobility options (walking biking and transit in addition to driving) and enhancing streetscape design to make these alternatives viable and to integrate stormwater management into street design.

As we mentioned in part one of this series the choice to relocate or retrofit a structure is a policy decision with major implications for a variety of sectors including land use transportation and the environment. A representative from Montgomery noted that the County is focusing on removing structures from floodplains while a rep from NCPC added that they’re working on an interior drainage flooding plan for the Federal Triangle area and other very low-lying parts of the District.

Regionalism is key. As many participants indicated much of the climate adaptation work currently underway throughout the country is done an ad-hoc jurisdiction by jurisdiction basis. This effort by COG and EPA is focused on exploiting the benefits of a regional approach (such as avoiding unnecessary duplication of work minimizing competing standards sharing best practices etc.) while also accounting for jurisdictional variety in implementation. In much the same fashion that Region Forward acknowledges that inner and outer jurisdictions will contribute in different ways to meeting the region’s overall targets this plan will not be a one size fits all approach.

This is part two of a two-part series based on the recent Climate Change Adaptation Workshops. Part one focused on the water and building sectors.

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