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A transportation worker moves traffic cones on a damaged highway Monday on Hatteras Island, N.C. Extreme weather is damaging roads, bridges, railways, airports and transit systems.

Nation’s lifelines buckling under weather

Extremes challenge infrastructure, views on climate change

– The nation’s lifelines – its roads, airports, railways and transit systems – are getting hammered by extreme weather beyond what their builders imagined, leaving states and cities searching for ways to brace for more catastrophes like Superstorm Sandy.

Even as they prepare for a new normal of intense rain, historic floods and record heat waves, some transportation planners find it too politically sensitive to say aloud the source of their weather worries: climate change.

Political differences are on the minds of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, whose advice on the design and maintenance of roads and bridges is closely followed by states. The association recently changed the name of its Climate Change Steering Committee to the less controversial Sustainable Transportation, Energy Infrastructure and Climate Solutions Steering Committee.

Still, there is a recognition that the association’s guidance will need to be updated to reflect the new realities of global warming.

“There is a whole series of standards that are going to have to be revisited in light of the change in climate that is coming at us,” said John Horsley, the association’s executive director.

In the latest and most severe example, Superstorm Sandy inflicted the worst damage to the New York subway system in its 108-year history, halted Amtrak and commuter train service to the city for days, and forced cancellation of thousands of airline flights at three airports in New York and New Jersey.

Wild weather is taking a toll on transportation across the country.

In Washington state, “we joked we were having 100-year storms every year,” said Paula Hammond, head of the state’s Department of Transportation.

Last year, flooding threatened to swallow up the Omaha, Neb., airport, which sits on a bend in the Missouri River. The ground beneath the airfield became saturated, causing about 100 sinkholes and “soil boils” – uplifted areas of earth where water bubbles to the surface.

The airport was spared through a massive effort that included installing 70 dewatering wells and stacking sandbags around equipment and buildings.

Record-smashing heat from Colorado to Virginia last summer caused train tracks to bend and highway pavement to buckle. A US Airways jet was delayed at Washington’s Reagan National Airport after its wheels got stuck in a soft spot in the tarmac.

States and cities are trying to come to terms with what the change means to them and how they can prepare for it. Transportation engineers build highways and bridges to last 50 or even 100 years. Now they are reconsidering how to do that, or even whether they can, with so much uncertainty.

No single weather event, even a storm like Sandy, can be ascribed with certainty to climate change, according to scientists. But the increasing severity of extreme events fits with the kind of changing climate conditions that scientists have observed.

For example, several climate scientists say the sea level along much of the Northeast is about a foot higher than a century ago, mostly because of man-made global warming, and that added significantly to the damage when Sandy hit.

A congressional commission estimated that all levels of government together are spending $138 billion a year less than is needed to maintain the current system and to make modest improvements.

“The infrastructure of the nation is aging, and it’s at risk because, quite frankly, we’re all not investing enough to take care of these facilities,” said Hammond, the chairwoman of the climate committee.

Planning for weather extremes is hampered by reluctance among many officials to discuss anything labeled “climate change,” Horsley said.

“In the Northeast, you can call it climate change. ... Elsewhere, in the South and the (Mountain) West, it’s still not an acceptable term because of ideology or whatever you want to call it.”

Steve Winkelman, director of transportation and adaptation programs at the Center for Clean Air Policy, said he uses terms like “hazard mitigation” and “emergency preparedness” rather than climate change when talking to state and local officials.

“This is about my basement flooding, not the polar bear – what I call inconvenient sewer overflow,” Winkelman said. “It makes it real.”

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