Transportation official: Grid must handle natural disasters

The nation's transportation grid must be built to withstand a new normal of more serious natural disasters and it won't be cheap or easy, a top official of the U.S. Transportation Department warned Wednesday.

Creating a resilient transportation system is "the most significant challenge we have in the century going forward," Peter Rogoff, the department's undersecretary for policy told a forum sponsored by the Eno Center for Transportation.

Rogoff said such things as building highways and rail lines higher and better protected to withstand storms and sea level rise makes financial sense.

But it will also be more expensive in the short-run he told dozens attending the forum. The think-tank sponsoring the event works to make transportation systems more efficient and safer.

Rogoff said the damage from Superstorm Sandy two years ago in the New York City area proved the worst transportation disaster in the nation's history.

The storm flooded subway tunnels, cut power to electric train lines, snarled traffic because of road and other damage and caused lines at gas stations when new supplies could not be brought in.

"We need to break away from a cost-benefit process that justifies projects solely on what happened in the past," Rogoff said. "Taxpayers shouldn't be footing the bill for infrastructure and transportation assets that are not designed for the new normal."

He noted some of the tunnels in New York that flooded during Sandy flooded just a year earlier in Hurricane Irene.

Changing the way America builds its transportation system will require convincing "a skeptical public, a skeptical bureaucracy and a skeptical Congress," Rogoff added.

America is more interconnected with communications than ever before, said Lillian Borrone, who chairs the board of the Eno Center. "But what good does it do if we're connected?" she asked, if people can't get to hospitals, to grocery stores or are cold and can't get heating fuel.

The economy depends on moving goods in a transportation system that is both public and private said Leslie Blakey the president of a nonprofit that works for increased federal investment in the nation's freight infrastructure.

"The response to a destructive event is going to always be very challenging because so many players are involved and yet the stakes could not possibly be higher," she said.

She said that the cost to the economy of a disaster is generally much higher than dealing with the immediate damage.