Senate Committee Discusses the Effects of Extreme Heat and Weather on Transportation

On Wednesday, September 13, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works met to examine the effects of extreme heat and weather on transportation. The committee called on representatives of cities, the labor force, and the private sector to testify on how to make communities resilient to extreme heat and weather events.

The hearing comes at a time when extreme heat and weather events are increasingly common. Excessive heat waves across the country, increased flooding, hurricanes in Florida and California, and the catastrophic fires in Hawaii have upended communities, taken lives, and caused billions of dollars in damage.

In the transportation sector, extreme heat and weather events can disrupt and damage highways, bridges, railroads, and other pieces of transportation infrastructure. Heat waves can reduce the integrity of road pavement, flooding can wash away bridges and railroad tracks, and both hurricanes and heat waves can impair air travel. The disruption to transportation reduces access to the transportation network and cuts people off from services they need.

The committee called on the following witnesses to share their testimony and knowledge regarding this salient issue:

  • David Hondula, PhD: Director of the Office of Heat Response and Mitigation, City of Phoenix, AZ
  • Travis Parsons: Director of Occupational Safety and Health, Laborers International Union of North America
  • Aimee Flannery, PhD, PE: Global Principal for Transportation Risk and Resilience, Jacobs Solutions

The witness testimony and following discussion revolved around three different themes surrounding the impact of extreme heat and weather events: climate and heat resilience, labor issues, and the role of government.

Climate and Heat Resilience

Strategies and Lessons

Building resilience to extreme heat and weather events has become a salient issue for governments, corporations, and the public. There are federal programs in place that have begun to address the impacts of extreme heat and weather. The Healthy Streets program, the Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-Saving Transportation (PROTECT) program, and Neighborhood Access and Equity programs, are all part of the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). These programs provide funding that governments can use to introduce or enhance resiliency in communities across the country. Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) noted a state initiative in Delaware called the “Tree for Every Delawarean,” which seeks to plant one tree for every resident in Delaware.

At the local level, Dr. Hondula discussed programs being implemented at the Office of Heat Response and Mitigation in Phoenix, which is the first office of its kind in the country and places Phoenix in a unique position to be a leader in building resiliency against extreme heat. The Cool Pavement Program focuses on applying a solar-reflective coating on road pavement, which can decrease the road surface temperature by up to 12°F. Additionally, the asphalt underneath receives less strain and potentially reduces road maintenance costs. In response to an inquiry from committee ranking minority member Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) about the performance of the Cool Pavement programs, Hondula brought up the concern that the reflective coating can degrade over time, and noted earlier that program evaluation is key.

Another program in Phoenix is the Cool Corridor Program aimed at providing 60 percent shaded coverage for pedestrians on over 200 miles of city streets. Regarding the city’s bus fleet, Hondula mentioned the city’s efforts to transition to battery electric and hydrogen powered buses to decrease the heat waste emissions from vehicles that contribute to the urban heat island effect.

Dr. Flannery discussed key strategies and lessons from the private sector, including efforts to rebuild damaged road infrastructure in Colorado following several extreme weather events, including flooding and a rockslide. The efforts to rebuild sections of roadways that were washed away were supported by changes in the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Emergency Relief program, and Dr. Flannery highlighted that those changes in the program provided the necessary funding to help.

In response to a question on access to information from Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), Flannery provided the following insight: “Models, metrics, and methods.” There are few standards for resilience in design, operations, and maintenance. Research on asset (i.e., roads, bridges, etc.) performance and risk tolerance to extreme heat and weather are crucial. Dr. Flannery suggested the importance of tangible and quantifiable measures that policy makers and transportation industry experts can use in targeting the impacts of extreme heat and weather.

Research and Education

Flannery emphasized several times during the hearing the importance of research and education in building resiliency. Incorporating resilience can take the form of research on risk tolerance or creating criteria for design standards and specification for transportation infrastructure that are built to withstand extreme heat and weather. According to Flannery, incorporating resilience into undergraduate and graduate degree programs can provide the next generation of engineers and transportation industry experts with a foundation to address the impacts of extreme heat and weather.

Labor Issues

Extreme heat and weather do not just impact transportation and infrastructure. They also impact people, especially the workforce that builds, operates, and maintains transportation and infrastructure. According to Travis Parsons, each one degree C increase in temperature is related to a one percent increase in workplace injuries. Prolonged exposure to heat can cause heat stroke and exacerbate existing conditions like kidney disease, diabetes, and heart disease. The lack of safety standards for workers can cause absenteeism, increased turnover, and liability costs, among other effects.

Parsons noted that the effects of extreme heat on labor are pronounced in low-income communities and communities of color, who usually work in harsher conditions. The rate of heat-related deaths is 51 percent higher with African Americans and 91 percent higher in the Mexican-born workforce.

In response to questions about workforce protections from chairman Carper and Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA), Parsons provided important solutions. Introducing codified heat protections and best practices are important in ensuring the safety of labor. Additionally, Mr. Parsons suggested improving the understanding of federal programs so that contractors, companies, and individuals know what funding is out there and how to access it. Implementing water/rest/shade policies can help the workforce stay cool, hydrated, and rested while working, ensuring their safety and productivity. According to Mr. Parsons, when it comes to workforce protections, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The Role of Government

Not a “One Size fits all” Approach

Ranking member Capito emphasized that policies aimed at extreme heat and weather should not take a “one size fits all” approach. The extreme heat and weather-related issues in New York may not be the same issues in Arizona. Therefore, the Senator stressed the importance of maintaining flexibility in the Federal Aid Highway program and programs in the IIJA, to ensure that state governments can implement policies to addresses different extreme heat and weather issues specific to their states.

Flannery voiced agreement with the sentiment, noting that a “one size fits all” approach can limit the understanding of the range of threats that affect highway assets. Mr. Parsons agreed, but stated towards the end of the hearing that there still should be a fundamental ground to stand on and a set of core values.

The Permitting Process

Capito expressed concern with the environmental review and permitting process, citing that in the fight against extreme heat and weather, the country cannot afford a lengthy and costly permitting process. Parsons noted that while the permitting process is important, it can get in the way and cited as an example the removal of highway-side barriers due to the permitting process creating a hazardous environment for highway workers. A streamlined process to approve permits is desirable within the committee to prevent long-term delays.

Government Program Funding and Awareness

Throughout the hearing, witnesses noted that the presence of government programs has supported efforts to mitigate the effects of extreme heat and weather. Hondula pointed out that there are funding opportunities in the IIJA and IRA for cities and states to implement heat response and mitigation policies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Environmental Justice Government-to-Government program for example, can provide funds for a Cool Corridor project in South Phoenix. Hondula noted that further integration of heat planning is necessary in the government. Heat does not always appear as a hazard in Notices of Funding Opportunities, and the government should push to include heat-related language, mechanisms, and processes to manage extreme heat. Hondula suggested that these steps can provide important information and resources to communities.

Hondula stressed that governments must be proactive in heat response preparation. For example, extreme heat should be a factor in a government’s procurement process of transportation infrastructure like traffic lights that have built-in fans to prevent over-heating. Later in the hearing, Hondula added that it is critical for local governments to articulate the issues related to extreme heat, with a designated “heat leader,” who acts as a point of contact, so people know where to go for information.

Flannery highlighted that continual funding from the federal government has supported state governments, noting an example of funding from the FHWA emergency relief program that assisted repair efforts in Colorado following massive flooding. Additionally, continued funding from the PROTECT program provides encouragement to state governments as well.

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