How Climate Change Threatens NYC’s Transportation Infrastructure

by |September 4, 2019

By Jeffrey Fralick

Susanne DesRoches headshot

Susanne DesRoches, a graduate of the masters program in Environmental Science and Policy, now serves as deputy director for infrastructure and energy in the New York City Mayor’s Office of Resiliency.

This spring, Susanne DesRoches, a graduate of Columbia University’s masters program in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP), testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Space, Science, and Technology regarding transportation resiliency. DesRoches currently serves as the deputy director for infrastructure and energy in the New York City Mayor’s Office of Resiliency.

We spoke with her about what it was like to testify in front of Congress, what NYC is doing to enhance its climate resilience, and what drew her to the MPA-ESP program after her previous work as an industrial designer.

What attracted you to the MPA-ESP graduate degree program?

While I enjoyed my career as an industrial designer, climate change had become a societal challenge I knew I wanted to address in my professional life. I was looking to build on my skills as a designer with an in-depth understanding of sustainability challenges and opportunities.

As climate change is a multifaceted problem that requires cross-cutting collaboration to address, I appreciated the ESP program’s fundamentally interdisciplinary perspective. Unlike many other programs, the ESP degree provides training in both science and policy, ensuring that graduates are equipped to holistically understand and confront the climate crisis. Further, the program’s location in New York City was especially attractive to me, in part because I have lived here since 1992, but also because New York is a city that is both vulnerable to climate impacts and a long-standing leader of ambitious climate policy.

Please describe your current role for the NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability?

As the deputy director for the infrastructure and energy team, I direct the city’s transition to 100 percent clean electricity by 2040 and oversee policy initiatives that promote the adoption and integration of clean energy technologies. I also lead the city’s efforts to adapt regional infrastructure systems to a changing climate, which includes the development of the NYC Climate Resiliency Design Guidelines. In addition, I lead the NYC Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, which works to identify climate risks and coordinate adaptation strategies across the city.

What was it like to testify in front of Congress? How did you prepare?

It was very exciting to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Space, Science, and Technology. The members were very well informed and had excellent questions. Given the executive branch’s inaction, it was inspiring to see members from both sides of the aisle show concerns about the impacts of climate change on their communities today and ask for ideas from the panel about how federal agencies could take immediate action. Before the hearing, I had spent a few weeks with my team evaluating opportunities where we thought that the federal government could help foster resiliency across the country. From New York City’s perspective, the U.S. Department of Transportation should be requiring all projects that receive federal funds to ensure resilient design by incorporating regional climate change projections through the useful life of the project. This would hold states accountable for ensuring their transportation infrastructure is resilient today and in the future.

In your testimony, you brought up Hurricane Sandy. In your opinion, how did Hurricane Sandy shift the discourse around NYC resiliency? What were the lessons — either positive [what worked] or negative [what did not work] — learned from this storm?

Almost seven years ago, Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City with unprecedented force, claiming 44 lives and causing over $19 billion in damages and lost economic activity. It was the costliest natural disaster we have ever faced. As we took stock of the damage, it was clear that we could not just plan to simply recover from the storm. Instead, we needed to use the moment to address the risks of ‘another Sandy’ while broadening our approach to prepare for the chronic impacts of climate change, particularly sea level rise and storm surge. Sandy reminded us that there is no silver bullet solution for climate resiliency, and that a multi-layered approach incorporating diverse solutions — ranging from infrastructure hardening to social cohesion initiatives — are necessary to prepare for the impacts of a changing climate.

What are the greatest climate change threats to NYC’s transportation industry/systems? What sort of impact would these threats have?

The greatest future risk to the city’s transportation network is storm surge, because so many pieces of critical transit infrastructure are located within the existing 100-year floodplain. Sea level rise will cause the 100-year floodplain to expand, and will put more of the city’s transportation network at risk of storm surge inundation in the years to come. The 100-year floodplain already includes 12 percent of the city’s roadway network, all of the major tunnel portals except for the Lincoln Tunnel, a portion of both airports located in the city, and many commuter rail and subway assets, particularly in lower Manhattan. Further, by 2100, 20 percent of lower Manhattan could be subject to daily tidal inundation, greatly impacting the ability of our transit links to maintain functionality. Extreme rainfall and heat will stress our networks further through localized disruptions and outages.

Jeffrey Fralick is an intern in the office of Steve Cohen, director of the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management at The Earth Institute.

If you’re interested in learning more about the MPA-ESP program, please contact assistant director Stephanie Hoyt (sah2239@columbia.edu) with any questions or to schedule a campus visit. MPA-ESP is currently accepting applications for summer 2020 with a fellowship funding consideration deadline of January 15, 2020.

Follow the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy on social media: FacebookInstagramTwitter.

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