Transit’s physical cliff: Climate change


California and New York State Legislatures voted to save transit from the fiscal cliff in 2023. While a win for transit can be a win for the climate, changing conditions across the country demonstrate the need for transit to find ways to be both fiscally and physically resilient.

A passenger train crosses a bridge near coastal California cliffs

Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner along coastal bluffs. Photo by Glenn Beltz via Flickr.

Between uncertain revenue sources, a sluggish ridership recovery after the pandemic, and increasing inflation-derived capital costs, transit agencies have their work cut out for them over the next few years. However, these crises are not new. Over the course of the 20th century, urban mass transit has had to weather many of the same crises we face today, including dealing with sprawling development, congested commutes, and inevitable budget crises stemming from unsustainable revenue streams. Transit advocates still need to find permanent ways down the fiscal cliff, and the solutions will likely involve brave policy decisions, coordinated advocacy, and innovation from transit authorities. 

But the fiscal cliff is not the only problem on the horizon. As climate change unfolds, transit will need the support to serve as communities’ resilient backbone through subtle, day-to-day challenges and demanding disasters. 

Changing landscapes

Coastal erosion, an issue only exacerbated by climate change, threatens one of the country’s most highly utilized rail transportation corridors. The Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo (LOSSAN) Corridor in Southern California serves millions of riders annually and currently vies for the title of second-busiest intercity passenger rail corridor with Miami and Orlando’s new Brightline rail service. The alignment hosts Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner as well as two commuter rail services, Metrolink in Los Angeles and Coaster in San Diego, connecting people to jobs along the coast and helping travelers bypass the extreme traffic congestion Southern Californians have always struggled with.

Despite the high ridership and significance to the region, the current alignment is literally falling into the sea as the rails on sandstone bluffs erode with rising sea levels and shifting weather patterns.  After two decades of service interruptions from landslides and over $100 million spent on temporary measures to stave off literal collapse, the San Diego Association of Governments has begun preliminary engineering & environmental review work to study a new alignment (with plans to open in 2035), after years of consideration and following months of service interruptions.

Sudden disasters

As adverse weather events like the recent Hurricane Otis and Tropical Storm Hilary become increasingly frequent and intense, the federal government, states, MPOs, and transit authorities will need to find ways to cooperate both proactively and reactively to meet the moment. Failure to prepare for and rebuild in the wake of a disaster can set regions back for years and only increase future chaos. When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast’s rail infrastructure, it eliminated a key resource for the region’s resilience. While freight rail infrastructure was quickly repaired, passenger trains have been out of service for nearly two decades and only recently—after much effort—are due to return. 

Without passenger rail or mass transit, residents are dependent on highway infrastructure for evacuation, which is vulnerable to car crashes and choking congestion during emergencies (check out the congestion on I-45 during an evacuation of Houston in 2005). Transit and passenger rail can provide citizens, especially those who do not have a car, a resilient avenue for evacuation that won’t just clog with a traffic jam.

The need for emergency funding

The stunningly fast 12-day turnaround to patch connections after the Interstate 95 collapse in Philadelphia this year shows just how swiftly critical infrastructure can be restored when properly prioritized. Mere days after the collapse, the Federal Highway Administration released $3 million to Pennsylvania DOT, offsetting the costs of the state’s repairs that started immediately after the incident. The FHWA’s Emergency Relief Program, funded at $100 million annually (in addition to supplemental appropriations), covers 100 percent of the immediate costs to mitigate emergency damage and up to 90 percent of federal highway repairs. This fast-acting program enables critical, day-one work to restore service, as states can work with certainty that they will be quickly reimbursed. 

Transit and passenger rail need emergency funding that is just as responsive (if not more so) than programs for highway infrastructure. Just as repairs are needed for highways to continue functioning after a disaster, they’re needed to keep transit and passenger rail running on time so that people can get where they need to go. And since transit can be a valuable tool for mobility in the wake of disaster, transit systems should be restored as quickly as possible to ensure travel flow can continue. 

Unlike the FHWA’s emergency program, the Federal Transit Administration’s Public Transit Emergency Relief Program receives $0 in annual appropriations. Instead, transit has to rely on Congress to pass legislation (a task that generally requires a Speaker of the House) to respond to disasters. This means that FTA cannot provide funding immediately after emergencies. Worse still, when disaster hits rail infrastructure, FTA’s disaster reserves have been transferred out to the Federal Railroad Administration, which does not have a much-needed emergency relief program of its own. Funds for disasters that occurred as far back as 2017 were only awarded this year as a result of an act that appropriated just $214 million to transit for four calendar years of disasters. Meanwhile, the same bill appropriated an additional $803 million to FHWA’s emergency program, on top of annual appropriations. 

This issue is being recognized by federal legislators in new marker bills leading up to the next transportation reauthorization bill. Earlier this year, Senator Fetterman introduced a bill to inject an additional $50 million annually for the FTA’s Public Transit Emergency Relief Program to expedite the delivery of funds to match I-95’s 12-day recovery.  In response to sudden rain and flooding in New York, Senator Gillibrand put forth legislation that would add funding to help transit agencies conduct proactive resiliency projects to FTA’s State of Good Repair Grants. Long-term resiliency for transit matters more every year, as its riders, many of whom are low-income,  will be the most intensely hit by climate change, which they will face in the form of record-breaking heatwaves, rainstorms, and wildfire-induced air pollution. 

The bottom line

With the IIJA lapsing in 2026 and natural disasters on the rise with climate change, Congress needs to devise new policies to improve how the country restores public transit in the wake of earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, and even the less dramatic, predictable emergencies. New programs must find ways to prioritize transit speed, equitable service, and long-term resiliency, not just infrastructure built the same and built to fail.

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