Miles Of Florida Roads Face ‘Major Problem’ From Sea Rise. Is State Moving Fast Enough?
After years of ignoring or denying climate change, Florida has begun assessing the threat that sea rise poses to a sprawling transportation network essential to the state’s economy.
But the risks, like the water, are rising fast.
One 2018 Department of Transportation study has already found that a two-foot rise, expected by mid-century, would imperil a little more than five percent — 250-plus miles — of the state’s most high-traffic highways. That may not sound like a lot, but protecting those highways alone could easily cost several billion dollars. A Cat 5 hurricane could be far worse, with a fifth of the system vulnerable to flooding. The impact to seaports, airports and railroads — likely to also be significant and expensive — is only now under analysis.
While simply acknowledging the risk represents a sea change in government leadership in Florida, there are already questions if the state has started too late and whether it can move fast enough to keep up with the rising water.
“My concern, on a scale of one to ten, is about eight,” says Leonard Berry, a professor emeritus of geosciences at Florida Atlantic University and the lead author of a 2012 study that first analyzed the vulnerability of Florida’s roads to the rising seas and found the single most at-risk stretch in an unexpected place: Dania Beach.
But it is only now, nine years later, that FDOT is starting to design roads with climate change in mind. And the shift in practice, interviews and public records reveal, has as much to do with a different administration in Tallahassee as it does with pressure on the state from coastal municipalities with flooded roads.
That lost time, Berry says, means money.
“We are postponing investments now that will cost us five to 10 times more in the future.”
While state transportation and environmental agencies say they are confident that Florida has the resources and expertise to address the threats without disrupting daily travel or business in the years to come, they can’t yet answer some key questions, starting with how much it will cost to adapt roads — let alone protect obviously high-risk commerce centers like seaports.
With the focus on major roads, the state has not yet calculated the broader impact to state and local roads, but a Sun Sentinel and Miami Herald analysis, conducted using data from the state’s own sea level rise planning tool, found that the potential toll is significantly higher.
By 2040, some 445 miles of roads in the state would likely be flooded. By 2060, that number more than triples to almost 1,600 miles of roads.
State Sen. Shervin Jones, a Broward County Democrat who sits on the Florida Senate’s transportation committee, calls the climate threat a “ticking time bomb.”
“We can’t keep pushing it off to the next session,” Jones said of the threat the changing climate poses to the state’s roads. “One session will be the last session where we push it off and we’re going to have a major problem.”
Republican Florida House member Vance Aloupis shares Jones’ concern, but he also credits Gov. Ron DeSantis for the progress the state has made in addressing its transportation vulnerabilities.
“We’re not at the place where our living rooms are getting flooded like on Miami Beach, but it’s only a matter of time,” Aloupis said of his Coral Gables district.
‘WHERE WE ARE GOING, WE DON’T NEED ROADS’
At a Jan. 12, 2021 meeting of the Florida Senate Transportation Committee, FDOT Secretary Kevin Thibault began his presentation to legislators by quoting Doc Brown from the 1985 film Back to the Future.
“Roads? Where we are going, we don’t need roads,” Thibault, the head of an agency with a ten billion dollar annual budget, said. No one laughed.
Included in the presentation was a breakdown by Will Watts, the agency’s chief engineer, of the work FDOT has been doing in the last few years to prepare Florida for the climactic changes set to rock the state in the coming decades.
The primary focus, he said, was on evaluating the impact of climate change on its most important highways, a network that Florida transportation planners poetically term the “strategic intermodal system.” Like a cardiologist examining a middle-aged patient for circulatory issues, FDOT has set about trying to figure out just how vulnerable chunks of its strategic intermodal system really are and what should be operated on first.
To do so, Watts said, they helped fund a sea level prediction tool built by researchers at the University of Florida. They also ordered up a risk assessment - an analysis of how vulnerable a road or bridge might be - of the entire strategic intermodal system.
“Phase one, which looks at highways, is complete,” Watts told the senators. Phase two, which looks at ports and airports, was still ongoing. FDOT, he said, was still working on it’s “action plan” for how to adapt. The department plans to release that plan in the next few months.
The study Watts referenced was commissioned in 2018 and completed by Cambridge Systematics. It found that “the regional transportation network is significantly vulnerable to storm surge and sea level rise.”
It found that a 2-foot rise in sea levels, which experts forecast by 2050, would imperil “a total of 252 centerline miles of the total SIS highway system,” or about 5.5% of the state’s critical highways. Storm surge projection from a Category 5 could flood a fifth of those roads.
The findings, for the most part, identified the same risks that the FAU study highlighted six years earlier in 2012. But it also pointed to even more problems.
In that analysis, Berry, along with engineers from FDOT, published a peer-reviewed paper that year that looked at all the roads in Florida - not just the critical high-traffic highways the state analyzed in 2018. He found that up to 10% of southeast Florida’s roadways were potentially vulnerable to a 3-foot 2-inch rise in sea level.
Across the state, 5% of all roadways may be in peril — led by a stretch in coastal Broward County.
“We found that the lowest state roadway in the entire system is Dania Beach Boulevard,” said Fred Bloetscher, a professor of civil engineering at Florida Atlantic University who worked on the 2012 study alongside Berry.
Their paper also pointed out that flooded roads snarled traffic and eventually became structurally unsound.
That more recent FDOT study, along with an April 2020 memo Thibault sent to DeSantis confirming that the agency will “continue to identify risks” from sea level rise and storms, point to a major shift in the politics of climate change for longtime Florida transportation watchers like Janet Bowman.
Bowman, a senior policy advisor for the Nature Conservancy, just finished her third stint working on the team overhauling the state’s Transportation Plan Update, a process that happens every five years.
“The first time it was very difficult to have any discussion of resilience or climate, and certainly, that’s changed,” she said. “I think this time there really was no resistance to talking about it and developing policy.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
Despite the challenges and still-unknown but likely massive price tags for projects, state leaders say they are confident the state was prepared to adapt thousands of miles of roads before they’re soaked by rising seas.
“It is a critical issue to address and plan for and take seriously,” said Noah Valenstein, head of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection and the state’s chief resilience officer, in an interview with the Sun Sentinel and Miami Herald.
The most daunting unknown may be cost. The best estimates come from places where road raising — one of the main strategies to keep streets dry — is already underway.
In Monroe County, recent estimates indicate that raising just half of the county’s 300 miles of road at risk before 2060 could cost $1.8 billion. That price tag is lower in places like Miami Beach, where the water drained from higher roads doesn’t have to be cleaned to such a high standard as the Keys. Miami Beach’s first residential road raising project, which elevated about three miles of road, cost $40.9 million.
Valenstein pointed to Governor Ron DeSantis’ recent proposal for a billion-dollar bond to help local governments adapt to sea level rise as a sign of the state’s financial commitment.
Thibault, who participated in the same interview as Valenstein, said the department of transportation plans to work the cost of resilience into its regular budget process and tackle it on a project-by-project basis.
“There is no set-aside number that we’ve identified as a resiliency number. It’s part and parcel of how we do business. It’s a continuous process,” he said.
Another key problem: how high should they build the road? That depends on how much sea level rise you expect.
Lots of organizations from NOAA to the Army Corps of Engineers, have different estimates of when all the water will show up. A lower estimate would call for a lower road, and less money spent to build it — but it may end up with the road being swamped.
Neither secretary offered a direct answer on how the state will go about choosing which sea level rise estimate is most appropriate for each project.
Valenstein pointed to the work the state is doing to develop a tool for choosing the right projections for state-funded coastal construction, a process kick started by the lone climate change bill passed in 2020 sponsored by State Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez.
Perhaps in a nod to that process, Thibault said that if there’s a range of seasonal high water marks for an area, DOT will pick the highest one to better protect the road.
“We tend to side on the conservative in the data we build in our system,” he said.
But when asked about a possible process for abandoning roads that are too expensive to keep dry under future flood conditions, something the Keys are considering, Thibault said the topic “has never come up.”
LOCAL GOVERNMENT LED THE WAY
In its turn toward resilience, the state’s department of transportation is following the lead of local governments, particularly in South Florida.
Jennifer Jurado, the chief resilience officer for Broward County, credits the state for a “positive evolution” in the way it thinks about the implications of sea level rise.
Before the change in attitude, Jurado says, “there was a severe reliance on receptiveness of individuals in order to have informed conversations about how projects need to be evaluated.”
Some of those individuals appear to have listened.
In a recent training session for planners on how to use the UF tool that shows sea level rise’s impact on roads, a policy planning leader at FDOT shared that her district had learned how to estimate the right amount of future sea rise from Jurado herself.
But it’s clear that the newfound camaraderie between state and local officials was hard-won, and that could signal new hurdles ahead when it comes to making tough decisions about the height and costs of future roads.
In Miami Beach, the first city in the state to dramatically elevate roads in response to rising seas, leaders agree it was a challenge to get FDOT on the same page at first.
“Over the years we’ve not always seen exactly eye to eye but we’ve agreed on the engineering concepts behind these things,” said Eric Carpenter, deputy city manager of Miami Beach.
When the state did work on a section of Alton Road a few years back, they were not interested in raising the road as high as the city wanted. But partway through the project, engineers discovered that the city’s alarms about how close saltwater was to the bottom of the road were true, and FDOT switched to a newer, more salt-resistant material.
City officials point to that switch, and the state’s decision to significantly elevate the next portion of Alton Road they work on, as a sign of Miami Beach’s influence on the agency.
“Our city has definitely blazed trails in examining what elevation criteria would be the most protective for now and the future,” said Amy Knowles, chief resilience officer for Miami Beach.
Like in Miami Beach, a DOT project in Hollywood was also gummed up when the state agency realized partway through that high sea levels posed more of a threat than anticipated.
Jorge Camejo, the executive director of the Hollywood Community Redevelopment Agency, said it took the department three years to finish what should have been an 18-month project reconstructing a portion of state road A1A between Sheridan and Hollywood Boulevard — because of tidal flooding.
“It made them realize that this is a serious condition that makes this segment of A1A no longer just another roadway project. It’s a challenging situation,” he said. “This isn’t just putting asphalt down anymore, you have to figure out what to do with the water.”
Camejo says plans to address the flooding issue involve putting in stormwater pumps and installing one-way valves that allow water to drain away from the road but stop it from flooding back in when tides rise. They’re also looking into raising roads, but that poses a major challenge.
“We could raise A1A by as much as a foot, which might make a big difference in the flooding, but what does that do to the harmonization between A1A and existing properties?” he said.
Much in the same way that Miami Beach discovered that water flows down-hill after raising roads in the Sunset Harbor neighborhood in 2016 and accidentally flooding adjacent businesses, Camejo worries about the spillover effects from road raising.
No matter which option the state chooses, Camejo said he’s grateful the conversation has moved past the “milestone” of acknowledging the risks of rising seas.
“At the highest policy level of state road construction we now have their attention, and that’s the first step to coming up with a solution,” Camejo said.
Sun Sentinel data reporter Aric Chokey contributed to this report.
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.