Sandy Hertz has a big job. As director of the newly established Office of Climate Change within the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), Hertz is responsible for keeping the state’s transportation systems humming in the face of increasing climate threats. Hertz, who joined MDOT in 2004 and assumed her current role in June 2021, has seen firsthand how storms, flooding, and other extreme events have become more frequent and severe and says that Maryland must act now to prepare for the future.
“We need to see resilience become part of every single component of transportation planning,” Hertz said in a recent virtual discussion with Pew’s State Resilience Planning Group (SRPG). “What we anticipate is not always what happens. But how we proactively prepare and respond to disruptions is something that is within our control.”
To do this, MDOT uses life-cycle planning and asset management techniques to assess infrastructure vulnerabilities and better prepare for current and future risks. MDOT also uses tools the state has developed to evaluate projects based on current and projected risks, including a model that forecasts sea level rise up to 100 years into the future.
One of these tools, the Watershed Resources Registry, analyzes natural resources data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and various state agencies to inform decision-making at the watershed scale. The registry, which Hertz helped develop, supports agencies in evaluating projects for environmental impacts. Seven other states—Alaska, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia—now also have their own registries.
Another resource, the Climate Change Vulnerability App, helps MDOT plan projects and investments holistically by assessing hazard vulnerability and projecting whether a particular stretch of roadway might be affected by future flooding. “We look at various factors when we’re talking about vulnerability, and it’s not just about the structural integrity of our roadways or bridges,” Hertz told the SRPG. “It’s about the dependencies on our transportation system [and] what those transportation systems mean for our customers.”
Hertz’s department regularly employs nature-based solutions to reduce climate impacts, including a program to plant trees in urban areas. This helps reduce flooding by detaining excess rainfall and provides co-benefits such as keeping temperatures cooler, improving air quality, and increasing shade in marginalized and low-income neighborhoods that typically have less foliage. The Maryland Legislature created the program and funded it with transportation dollars.
With the prospect of new federal funds becoming available for infrastructure development, Maryland could serve as a model for other states to follow. For example, one provision in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last week, would create a new U.S. Department of Transportation program called Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-saving Transportation (PROTECT).
Also at the recent SRPG meeting, Andrew Wishnia, deputy assistant secretary for climate policy at the Transportation Department, emphasized that the PROTECT program would dedicate $8.7 billion in grants to help states and municipalities reduce the vulnerability of transportation assets to natural disasters. Grant recipients could unlock additional funding if their resilience plans are developed and incorporated into long-term statewide or metropolitan transportation plans.
“[W]e’re on the brink of a turning point,” Wishnia said. “We of course have a huge climate crisis, and that extends to resilience … and … adaptation. But it presents such an opportunity.”
The infrastructure bill will define the terms “natural infrastructure” and “resilience,” providing clarity and consistency for state officials tasked to develop flood-ready transportation projects—a legislative first. Without clear definitions, these priorities are hard to capture or measure. As a result, communities could miss opportunities to reap co-benefits of resilient and natural infrastructure. The bill would also expand eligibility for projects to include nature-based components, such as marsh restoration, that can lower flood risks to transportation assets.
Pew’s discussion with Hertz and Wishnia illustrates that even as states face climate threats, leaders are finding innovative ways to address those threats and reduce negative impacts. Maryland is among the states that recognize the need to act to secure a safer—and less costly—future for their citizens.
Mathew Sanders is a senior manager and Sarah Edwards is a senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities project.