PARIS – The director of the Maine Department of Transportation’s Environmental Office said that the agency is looking into how to strengthen the state’s infrastructure as a means of preparing for climate change-related weather patterns.
Judy Gates, director of the MDOT’s Environmental Office, said that while Maine’s roads currently follow federal standards for safety and durability, “we’re making an effort to look at the effects of extreme weather, sea level rise and storm surges” and how it affects the state’s roads.
While Gates said that she has not noticed the roads in the Oxford Hills having the wear-and-tear from climate change-related weather events that other areas have, she reiterated that the agency has noticed a state-wide trend in larger storms happening on a more frequent basis.
Early in 2017, Gates said that the department took its first step toward bolstering the state’s infrastructure by adjusting the way it designs bridges and culverts.
“It’s something that we’ve always been talking about,” Gates said. “We’ve been doing a series of grant-funded research projects since 2013, looking for ways to increase the resilience of our infrastructure.”
“With bridges, we went from designing them to be able to withstand a 100-year storm, with checks, to a 500-year storm,” Gates said.
A 500-year storm is a storm that has a one in 500 chance of happening in any given year, according to the U.S. Geographical Survey.
Gates said that the MDOT has also started designing its culverts to handle 100-year storms, rather than 25-year storms.
Norway Town Manager Dennis Lajoie said that he and acting road foreman Art Chappell noticed that the number of summer storms that hit Norway in 2017 had increased in “both frequency and intensity” over previous years.
“We noticed that there were quite a few washouts this year after (some of the) storms, especially on gravel roads or anywhere where ditching wasn’t sufficient,” Lajoie said. “I’d say yes, there was definitely an increase in stronger storms this past year.”
He said that he and Chappell are working together to assess which roads may be affected most by unusual weather patterns influenced by climate change.
“We’re making sure that we have the gravel we need to rebuild the roads if they washout, and heading into the winter, we’re working on cutting back the brush more,” Lajoie said.
He added that the town of Norway is a part of the MDOT’s Local Roads Center, which keeps towns up to date when there are new innovations in road, culvert or bridge design.
“We’re always kept in the loop on what’s going on,” Lajoie said.
Oxford Interim Road Foreman Taylor Moore said that he hasn’t noticed a drastic change in road conditions due to stronger storms or warmer temperatures.
“To me, the roads have been mostly the same,” he said.
He added that the storm that hit Maine at the end of October, leaving nearly a half-million Maine homes and businesses without power, “didn’t affect the roads that much.”
Paris Highway Department Director James Hutchinson could not be reached for comment by deadline.
Gates said that the MDOT noticed “anecdotally what everyone else has noticed: we’re getting bigger storms more often, and we’re losing infrastructure because of these big events.”
“These 500- or 700-year storms are happening more often than their namesakes indicate,” she added. “The Maine Geological Survey not only shows us past trends but projects forward to the year 2100. A lot of their projections depends on different emission scenarios. If we’re designing a bridge that will last 100 years, we follow the most recent trends over the last 20 years and follow that out into the future.”
She added that the MDOT’s Environmental Office looks at the condition of an area’s infrastructure when determining where to focus its attention.
“We look at whether the infrastructure is safe, the level of service it provides, and whether it’s adequate for the amount of traffic using it,” Gates said, pointing to roads in the Western mountains and the coastal plains as problematic.
“In those areas, there’s more drastic runoff exacerbated by clearing projects,” Gates said. “That’s where you see more drastic effects of storms.”
The next step
Gates said that the next step for the MDOT’s Environmental Office is to “add roads into the mix.”
“Our next step is to identify roads that are most likely to be impassable in the short term or long term, due to storms or the sea level rising,” Gates said. “We don’t want to be building a bridge above water, and then have both ends of the bridge underwater.”
“It’s part of a larger conversation with the state as a whole as we continue to meet and keep each other aware of climate change issues,” Gates said.
She praised state universities and public forums in different municipalities for giving residents a place to talk about climate change issues.
“I think one of the most difficult things for us is that we’re a large organization that controls a lot of assets, so people may not feel the turn of the wheel right away, in terms of making changes,” Gates continued. “We’re trying to avoid the iceberg, whether we can see it right now or not. We’re figuring out what areas are the most vulnerable and going from there.”
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