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What Michigan is doing to prepare roads, bridges for climate change

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Climate change is causing heavier rainstorms in Michigan

A new study says Michigan's transportation system is better prepared for climate change than many other Midwest states.

But it's still not enough, according to the Midwest Economic Policy Institute.

Study author Mary Craighead says Michigan will see higher temperatures, heavier rains, increased erosion, and more frequent freeze-thaw cycles.  That will damage bridges, roads and other infrastructure.

Craighead says it's an economic issue for the whole country, not just Michigan.

"Thirty-five percent of U.S.-Canada trade flows through Michigan," says Craighead, "so it's incredibly important to have these operating infrastructure systems so we can accommodate that  freight."

Craighead says the Michigan Department of Transportation is taking steps to make infrastructure more stable in the face of climate change, but more transportation funding is going to be needed.

Mark Van Port Fleet is chief engineer for the Michigan Department of Transportation.  He agrees with the need for more funding, but says it's not possible to rebuild all the roads and bridges to withstand the damage from climate change, so Michigan is being judicious with scarce resources. 

"What's the importance of the route,  is it an emergency evacuation route in particular, is it a main thoroughfare? All those things go into evaluating when and where we spend our money to deal with the more extreme events that are happening," he says.

Van Port Fleet says the state is also doing more monitoring of severe weather events to protect motorists from situations that can happen, such as scouring during heavy flooding.

"Scouring happens when water starts moving material away from underneath structures," says Van Port Fleet. "Some are on deep foundations and piles and can withstand material being removed, but if a structure is on spread footings, it can become unstable."

The Midwest Economic Policy Institute study mentions that Michigan, unlike many other Midwest states, has a statewide climate action plan. 

But that was the case only during the Granholm administration.  The plan included measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.   

A spokeswoman with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says the council that devised the plan "completed its work and is no longer active." 

In its place, the Snyder administration created the Michigan Agency for Energy, "whose mission is to advance an adaptable, affordable, reliable and environmentally-protective energy future for Michigan."

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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