BOSTON (SHNS) – The most serious impacts of the changing climate may still be decades away, but senators impressed upon state transportation officials and utility executives Monday the importance of taking a close look at their vulnerabilities now and developing detailed plans to address shortcomings in the short, medium and long term.
Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change members huddled up Monday morning to hear from invited guests on the resilience of transportation and electric infrastructure, things like the power grid, roads and highways, and public transit systems that are essential to the state’s economy and quality of life.
“These are things in which our country, our wellbeing and our every routines depend. We want to make sure they’re going to be able to withstand frequent severe storms, rising seas and high levels of precipitation, heat and humidity. Because, if they can’t withstand them, we’re all in trouble,” Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem, who chairs the committee, said. “And it’s abundantly clear that we have to work to make our transportation and electric system more resilient.”
Monday’s hearing was not tied to any specific legislation and Creem said the Senate committee “seeks to assess the vulnerability of Massachusetts’s transportation and electric systems to climate change and to determine what action is necessary to improve those systems’ resilience.”
Steven Poftak, general manager of the MBTA, and Jonathan Gulliver, highway administrator for the Mass. Department of Transportation, walked senators through what each of their agencies has been doing to determine where its vulnerabilities are, to plan to address those issues and then to put into place a solution that will be able to withstand climate threats decades down the road.
The T faces “a number of threats,” Poftak said, from flooding concerns in its tunnel system to service disruptions caused by downed tree limbs to the proximity of the Mystic River to a key MBTA bus facility. He said the T has been conducting vulnerability assessments for its entire rapid transit system, key bus routes and commuter rail lines. About half of those studies are complete and the rest are expected to wrap up by the end of 2022.
The information gleaned from those studies will be incorporated into the T’s budgeting process and its capital projects planning, in which resilience-focused projects get priority. Poftak also told the committee about two projects — one complete and the other in the works — to protect T assets from climate-caused damage.
At the entrance of a Green Line tunnel near Fenway Station, the T last year installed floodgates and large steel doors to prevent flooding from the Muddy River. The $22 million project, combined with work done by the Army Corps of Engineers on the river itself, makes the T “feel like we have pretty good control of the Muddy River and the risks associated with it,” Poftak said.
On the other side of Boston, in Charlestown, the T is part of a project to build a new seawall “that is expected to serve as an effective barrier for the next 50 years” between the Mystic River and the MBTA’s Charlestown bus garage.
“This is a critical facility for us. Thirty-five percent of bus passenger miles are served by buses that come out of this facility,” Poftak said. He said the $45 million in costs associated with the project will lead to a “win-win” for the T and the community, which will get a “spectacular community path” on top of the new seawall.
While MassDOT and the MBTA work to make their systems more resilient to better stand up to worsening storms, the transportation agencies also filled lawmakers in Monday on the steps they are taking to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are fueling the change in the climate, like by switching to electric vehicles.
“While much has been done all across the state, what the recent weather events show is that we have a lot more work to do; assessments, planning, engineering, and construction,” Sen. John Keenan, the top-ranking Democrat on the Joint Committee on Transportation, said. “And we know it has not been easy and we know it has been expensive. Neither one of those will change, but we have to do this very important work.”
Sen. Marc Pacheco focused on the coordination, or lack thereof, between the state’s transportation agencies and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to make sure everyone is rowing in the same direction to meet the state’s greenhouse gas emissions targets.
Gulliver said MassDOT has a “great collaborative relationship” with EEA and that staffers from both sides meet “on a nearly ongoing basis on not just our ongoing initiatives but also projects, making sure that we’re designing in the right elements, that we’re doing it in a way that makes sense and that we’re working, again, collaboratively to make sure that everybody’s mutual policies are being met as best possible.”
Poftak, who runs an agency that sits beneath MassDOT’s umbrella, deferred to MassDOT but said that his team works with EEA as it tries “to synchronize our capital plan and frankly go faster.”
Pacheco said he would like to see greater coordination, especially if Massachusetts could have yet another pot of federal money to draw upon if or when a federal infrastructure bill is passed in Congress.
“If some of these federal funds start to flow, I would hope that we would have a comprehensive plan to deal with some of the transportation needs of the commonwealth as it pertains to our overall requirements and goals that we’ve set forth. So I would just urge the coordination,” he said. “We need to be doing that planning right now.”