Federal Coordinating Lead Author:
Michael Culp, U.S. Department of Transportation
Chapter Lead:
Jennifer M. Jacobs, University of New Hampshire
Chapter Authors:
Lia Cattaneo, Harvard University (formerly U.S. Department of Transportation)
Paul Chinowsky, University of Colorado Boulder
Anne Choate, ICF
Susanne DesRoches, New York City Mayor's Office of Recovery and Resiliency and Office of Sustainability
Scott Douglass, South Coast Engineers
Rawlings Miller, WSP (formerly U.S. Department of Transportation Volpe Center)
Review Editor:
Jesse Keenan, Harvard University
USGCRP Coordinators:
Allyza Lustig, Program Coordinator
Kristin Lewis, Senior Scientist


Precipitation changes are projected to vary across the country, with certainty about impacts much higher in some regions than others (Ch. 18: Northeast).25 In the Northeast, rainfall volume and intensity have increased25,26 and may impact transportation performance due to roadway washouts, bridge scour, and heaving or rutting due to freeze–thaw cycles, depending on site-specific conditions.12,27,28,29 Intense precipitation at Northeast and mid-Atlantic airports has cascading effects on other airports and cargo movement networks, such as trucking and rail, due to delayed or canceled flights and stranded crews.30,31,32 The projected increases in tropical cyclone wind speeds and rainfall intensity33 by the end of the century indicate that shipments in Hawai‘i and the Pacific Islands may be interrupted more frequently and for longer periods.34 Storms also cause erosion and dramatic changes to island coastlines, with associated damages to roadways, harbors, and airports (Ch. 27: Hawai‘i & Pacific Islands, KM 3).

In the Midwest, which has experienced an increase in riverine flooding resulting in long-term interstate freeway closures, future flooding is the main concern for transportation infrastructure (Ch. 21: Midwest, KM 5).30 In Northeast urban regions, transportation network disruptions from high tide flooding are increasing and further stressing congested networks and storm water management systems (Ch. 18: Northeast, KM 3). Similarly, flooding in the Northwest has repeatedly blocked railways, flooded interstates, and halted freight movement, impacting access to critical services (Ch. 24: Northwest, KM 3 and (5). In the first three months of 2017, Spokane County, Washington, had already spent $2 million more than its yearly budget for road maintenance due to flooding from rapid snowmelt.35 Flooding in the Pacific Northwest may also threaten access to recreation on federal lands, an economic driver for the region.36

Lack of precipitation is also a concern for the transportation network. In the past, high and low extremes in water levels in the Mississippi River and Great Lakes have limited boat traffic, affecting jobs and the ability of goods to get to domestic and international markets37,38,39 and potentially increasing shipping costs in the future (Ch. 21: Midwest).40

In the Midwest, Northeast, Northern Great Plains, and Alaska, in particular, warming winters with fewer extremely cold days41 and fewer snow and icing events25 will likely extend the construction season, reduce winter road maintenance demand, and reduce vehicle accident risk.42,43,44 However, when ice roads that run over a frozen water surface, such as a river or lake, start to thaw and allowable vehicle weight is therefore reduced, trucking and logging industries lose money due to limited access to road networks,45 thus increasing transport costs (Ch. 26: Alaska, KM 5). Warming winters will also change the timing and location of freeze and thaw events, potentially increasing pavement cracking and pothole conditions in northern states.12,45 In Alaska, near-surface permafrost thaw is responsible for severe damages to roads, airport runways, railroads, and pipelines (Ch. 26: Alaska).46

Climate change is projected to increase the costs of maintaining, repairing, and replacing infrastructure, with regional differences proportional to the magnitude and severity of impacts. Nationally, the total annual damages from temperature- and precipitation-related damages to paved roads are estimated at up to $20 billion under RCP8.5 in 2090 (in 2015 dollars, undiscounted, five-model average) (see the Scenario Products section of App. 3 for more on the RCPs). Inland flooding, projected to increase over the coming century, threatens approximately 2,500 to 4,600 bridges across the United States and is anticipated to result in average annual damages of $1.2 to $1.4 billion each year by 2050 (in 2015 dollars, undiscounted, five-model average).47

The transportation chapter of the Third National Climate Assessment highlighted Arctic warming, ports, weather-related disruptions, and adaptation strategies.48 New research indicates that those findings are still valid concerns for the transportation sector. Some new research highlighted in this chapter includes 1) socioeconomic disparities in response to transportation vulnerabilities, 2) intermodal and cross-sector dependencies and strategies (moving toward a more holistic system as opposed to an asset-based analysis), and 3) communities’ challenges, including rural communities, to identify and justify investment in transportation.

The three Key Messages discuss the physical impacts of specific climate hazards on the transportation system, economic implications of interrupted transportation, and the efforts transportation engineers, planners, and researchers are taking to understand and address current and future vulnerabilities.

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