In Colorado, Climate Change Already Slowing You and Your Stuff, Action Needed Says Author of Climate Report

Amtrak's California Zephyr at Union Station. Image: Wikipedia Commons.
Amtrak's California Zephyr at Union Station. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

In Colorado, climate change will slow the delivery of packages, dramatically increase the number potholes, halt trains and planes that carry people and goods throughout the state, and make waiting for buses outside uncomfortable.

Some of these things are already happening, are likely to intensify in the next five to 10 years, and will require critical upgrades to transportation infrastructure according to Paul Chinowsky, a professor of engineering at C.U. Boulder, who was one of the authors of the National Climate Assessment.

“We really need to change the discussion to not if we’re going to do something, but when we’re going to start doing it,” he says.

Harsh New Reality
To keep Colorado’s people and their stuff moving, elected officials must outline priorities and start finding the money to make critical improvements because changes are coming fast, says Chinlowski.

“The trends are all showing more intense precipitation and hotter temperatures,” he says. “Those are two big things that most of the models can agree on.”

This warning comes after President Trump scoffed at the climate report. “I don’t believe it,” he said after the assessment was released in October.

Paul Chinowski is one of the authors of National Climate Assessment. Photo: Patrick Campbell, University of Colorado.

But even climate skeptics cannot argue with the fact that temperatures in Colorado already climb to the upper 90s more often and natural disasters such as fires, floods, and mudslides strike more frequently. As these problems become more common, keeping roads, bridges, tunnels, rails and airports functioning will require costly upgrades.

Colorado is already behind in maintaining its infrastructure, earning a “D+” rating on the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers. In November, voters rejected two statewide measures that would have funded improvements to the state’s transportation needs.

“We are a state where the citizens have always been very reluctant to pay to do these things,” says Chinowsky.

But he says that elected officials must recognize that adapting to a changing climate will require doing things that are unpopular — and it’s time for them to show leadership.

“We’re not doing the hard things,” he says. “We’ve passed the point of everybody being happy and polite about everything. We really need to take some aggressive action.”

Last year in Phoenix, officials stopped airplanes from taking off for several days when the city baked under heat that reached 115 degrees. Even if you don’t travel to Phoenix often, your stuff probably does, Chinowsky says. The city is one of the largest distribution hubs in the Southwest.

“This is where we start seeing disruptions,” he says about overnight and two-day delivery services. “Everything has to work on time.”

Train travel, whether for people or freight, is likely to be delayed more frequently, too. During intense heat, tracks can curve, buckle or misalign, which forces railroads to slow or stop trains completely.

Many people don’t realize how essential trains are in their daily lives, says Chinowsky about the many things transported by rail, including groceries, consumer products, materials used in construction, and coal, which remains the state’s dominant source of energy for electricity generation.

For passengers, heat restrictions will most affect lines that share tracks with freight trains. That includes RTD’s future expansion of the B-Line to Longmont and Amtrak, which in Colorado shares track with the BNSF and Union Pacific railroads.

“Commercial freight always has first priority, and if it gets backed up you have to wait until that gets cleared up,” says Chinowsky.

Roads and bridges will need to be built to withstand ferocious new conditions, says Chinowsky, which will add staggering costs to ensure the infrastructure can stand up to more heat, rain and floods.

“You’re going to have to design for what the environment is likely to look like 30 years from now and not what it was 30 years ago, which is what we tend to do,” he says.

Drought and a drier climate are expected to intensify in the West, but rainfall and floods will change in ways that create problems for existing infrastructure.

“It’s not necessarily a lot more water,” says Chinowsky. “We’re not getting wetter, but the amount of rain we’re getting comes much more intense and short bursts.”

As storms become faster and more extreme, water flows will wash out roads and expose the vulnerabilities of the nation’s 100,000 bridges that need to be reinforced.

Heat also will present problems to asphalt, which degrades more quickly in hot conditions.

The Denver Department of Public Works says its asphalt is designed to withstand temperatures up to 150 degrees. But the number of freeze-thaw cycles, which quickly deteriorate roads, is likely to increase, especially in the mountains.

“We can increase the maintenance cycle, which is going to cost money at the agency level,” he says. “Or we can let them degrade further, which is going to cost more to the average motorist or the transit districts for more repair to their cars or buses.”

Walking, Biking and Transit
Colorado planners must make sustainable forms of transportation more attractive as a changing climate continues to make roads more costly to maintain, says Chinowsky. And that will ruffle feathers.

“You’ve got to make transit either a highly attractive, or highly disincentivize using those cars,” he says. “Whatever you do is going to be unpopular to somebody.”  

Attracting more people to transit will require making it faster and more reliable. “If it takes people 50 percent more time or more to do public transport to get to work, they’re just not going to do it,” says Chinowsky.

But officials should also disincentivize driving. Making driving less convenient can be achieved by reducing parking (which Minneapolis and San Francisco did recently) and installing bus, bike and pedestrian street improvements.

“There’s not enough pain now,” he says. “Yes we have traffic, but we don’t have as much as California, Atlanta or Boston. It’s not so much that it’s really an inconvenience.”  

The great outdoors
But even if significant numbers of people shift to walking, biking and transit, spending time outside will become less comfortable.

“Just think about waiting for a bus standing outside when it’s 95 degrees out,” he says. With more intense heat and longer allergy and asthma seasons, those who are already unhealthy are likely to visit emergency rooms more often. “What we’re going to see is the vulnerable populations are getting affected very quickly.”

Action, not plans, needed
Chinowsky says that elected officials must recognize that adapting to a changing climate will require doing things that are unpopular — and it’s time for them to show leadership. To keep Colorado’s people and their stuff moving, he suggests a concrete set of priorities.

“We can’t afford to do everything,” he says. “Whether you’re in Denver whether you’re at the state level, let’s start creating the 10 most important things that must be done right now.”