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Caltrans Is Trying To Prepare California Highways For Climate Change

Dave Revell / UCSC.edu
Coastal flooding in Santa Cruz, California.

Nearly three miles of prime beach views from Highway 1 near San Luis Obispo were recently moved inland by Caltrans, and  the state’s Department of Transportation is considering doing the same on other highways.

The problem? The ocean began encroaching on the highway. The realignment project moved a section of Highway 1 up to 475 feet inland. The almost $20 million projectwas completed in 2017 and the goal was to prevent sea-level rise and coastal erosion from causing major closures on this part of the highway over thenext century.  

By the year 2100 California’s coastline in some places could rise by as much as 10 feet, according to the California Coastal Commission.  

"Too many Californians have already experienced the effects of climate change," said Caltrans Director Toks Omishaken. “Caltrans is taking steps now to fully understand the reality we're facing.”

Sea level rise, more extreme fires, drought and floods are all in the cards for California when it comes to climate change. Combating those effects is estimated to cost California billions. And all those risks could have a big impact on California’s roads, bridges, highways, freeways and railways. 

"Across the state we're already working on projects, but we're more in a reactive phase,” said Caltrans spokesperson Lindsey Hart.“But we’re not sitting idle. On Highway 37 [near the Bay Area] we are already doing work to reduce the impact of flooding that comes every winter because sea level rise is meeting or exceeding where the road normally stands.”

The agency has completed10 of 12 climate change vulnerability assessments with help from scientists around the state. The high-level assessments look at how Caltrans is planning for the long-term effects of climate change. 

“This is a proactive step to not just plan for the next year, but for the next decade," Hart said. “Where are we going to see additional impacts? Where is it going to hit hardest and where is it going to hit first?”

The concerns in the reports detail a myriad of climate risks, including more frequent wildfires, increased swings in precipitation, landslides and hot days. All which could mean more repairs, traffic or shutting down roads and bridges. 

“This is not a simple, straightforward effort … but we already have many of these projects like bridges being elevated,” said Reza Nevai, assistant division for transportation planning at Caltrans. 

He says the next step is for Caltrans to alert each part of the state with how to begin addressing immediate threats from climate change. That’ll come in second round of reports that could start trickling in beginning in 2020.

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