Weather is getting worse and our infrastructure can't handle it. Now what? | Editorial

After the heavy rains, a tree uprooted and fell across Kelly Drive at Boat House Row Monday morning just west of Waterworks Drive.

The recent heavy rains have represented the latest battle in the war between weather and our long-neglected infrastructure. Weather won.

On Monday, a storm stalled over the region, adding to already above-average rain totals. The  deluge shut down major arteries into Philadelphia at rush hour. Heavy rains sent mud and debris down a hill, which clogged a drainage pipe, which in turn flooded the eastbound lanes of the Schuylkill Expressway, shutting down the expressway between the Blue Route and Belmont Avenue for hours. Floodwaters also disrupted traffic on I-95 in Philadelphia and Route 38 in Cherry Hill. Trees were uprooted, including one that landed on Kelly Drive near Boathouse Row.

Fortunately, no one was seriously injured. But what about the next storm?

So far this month, 1.96 inches of rain have fallen — 0.72 inches above normal, according to the National Weather Service.

Our weather is getting more extreme, and our infrastructure isn’t up to the fight. Neither state is as prepared as it should be for strong rain,  never mind more extreme weather. Though both states are spending billions on improving infrastructure, they’re not spending enough energy on planning for climate change.

New Jersey raised its gasoline tax 23 cents in 2016 to spend $2 billion a year to repair roads, bridges, and mass transit. But in 2017, the Legislature added $400 million in spending for transportation and this year wants to add $166 million more. In 2013, Pennsylvania increased the gas tax on wholesalers to raise $2.4 billion for improvements.

Good drainage is built into road projects,  but those plans are based more on historical flooding patterns than future weather. Smartly, though, PennDot has taken on a multi-phase Weather Vulnerability Study to figure out how to make roads safe in foul weather.  It looks at both historic and future vulnerabilities to get engineers and planners to design more weather-resilient roadways. That’s good for the Philadelphia region, which is the most at-risk in the state. Because the work is still in its planning stages, cost estimates are not available for fixing the problem.

The New Jersey Climate Adaptation Alliance, a network of public and private policymakers, recommends the state develop resilient construction guidelines.  That’s the right path, and there’s a good model in Ocean County, where the state rebuilt Route 35 after it was wiped out by Hurricane Sandy. New Jersey installed a state-of-the-art drainage system with nine pump stations and 72 outfalls.

More should be done to prepare for our changing weather. We have to consider bumping up the funding even if it means raising gasoline taxes again. After all, our beloved cars and trucks are emitting the greenhouse gasses that fuel the very climate change that is a factor in increased flooding.

Our public policies should be more aggressive. For example, we should mandate that public funding can only finance projects that are engineered for maximum resiliency. Otherwise, we’re going to be stalled on the side of the road in the next heavy rainstorm — or worse.