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Climate Change Costs Will Come Due

Transportation infrastructure in California is expensive. The state’s road and highway system used to be one of its great economic engines, brilliant, expansive, and accessible. Now much of it has reached its useful life and is incredibly costly to repair and replace. Much of California’s transit infrastructure is dealing with the same difficult problem. In addition, expansion of any of these systems is incredibly difficult and expensive as environmental clearance takes years, rights of way are difficult to obtain, and because California demands fair wages and a skilled workforce, labor costs can be high. All this sums to a basic fact – California collects a lot of transportation funding each year and sometimes it is hard to understand where all that money goes.

Notwithstanding the piles of money we raise and spend each year for transportation purposes, we are still deficient in many ways. We struggle to maintain the systems we have, let alone expand these systems to adequately accommodate the state’s growing population. Unfortunately, because we are sometimes unable to meet the basic needs, we often fail to look far enough into the future to recognize the long-term global environmental trends and how they will eventually impact our own resources. What cannot be avoided, however, is the simple fact that the world is changing, and those changes have predictable outcomes – in other words, the costs attributable to the impacts of climate change will inevitably come due. Whether or not we can afford it, we need to find ways to plan for these impacts.

On January 29, 2021, a far-too-familiar impact occurred along Big Sur as a section of Highway 1 washed away into the sea. This will be an expensive emergency repair, and there is always a significant economic impact for closing Highway 1 in this part of California. While the Big Sur highway is a popular worldwide tourist attraction, providing breathtaking views, it faces virtual extinction if the state does not take unbelievably costly mitigation measures. Transportation officials know this inevitable fact, but have no means to address it. So instead, these landslides and wash outs will continue, and Caltrans will valiantly jump in to repair the damage with our scarce emergency funding. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident; there is infrastructure at risk all over the state.

To be clear, this is not Caltrans’ fault; they recognize the consequences of climate change on our transportation system. Unfortunately, there are just too many other issues to which Caltrans’ time and resources are directed. For example, Caltrans spends more than $100 million annually on litter cleanup along the highways. What we ultimately need is the absolute political will in the Legislature and Administration to acknowledge the coming onslaught and dedicate revenues (other than the existing transportation revenues needed to deal with all the other priorities) necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change. This is going to require billions of dollars, and there are very few options available, but someone needs to take this on. Otherwise, we will continue to deal with it piecemeal, and hope that will be enough.

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