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Mapping the Cape's doomed roads; Commission seeks public input on which to save

U.S. Department of Transportation
Coastal communities, including this one in North Carolina, face resiliency challenges with the combined effects of storm surge and sea level rise.

Patrick Flanary: The Cape Cod Commission is setting up workshops in 10 towns across the region to ask a simple question: In this age of climate change, is your low-lying road worth saving? And if it is, CAI's Eve Zuckoff says communities could soon get a blueprint of how to protect it. So it's complex, and I love when it is because Eve is here to always boil it down for us. Eve, welcome to the show.

Eve Zuckoff: Hi Patrick.

Patrick Flanary: So the Commission is going around to 10 towns and they're not thinking of saving every problematic low-lying road, are they?

Eve Zuckoff: No, no, no, no. What they're doing is they're working to help towns understand how vulnerable all their roads are to flooding and sea level rise. And ultimately, the towns will prioritize two roads to adapt. Their focus for this project is on town, on roads, bridges and culverts not private, state-owned roads like Route 28 or 6A. And when they talk about which roads are high priority, which are the two we're really going to focus on, not only are they considering flood risk, but criticality, which is decided by four factors. First, does that road have community or emergency services like a hospital, or school, or fire station? Second, is that road home to vulnerable populations? We're talking low-income, minority, or communities that struggle with housing and transportation security. Then is that road an important for network function? So what's the average daily traffic? And lastly, is it economically valuable? Does it host a number of businesses?

Patrick Flanary: OK, all right. So what kind of adaptation might come to these high priority roads? And we know just from the outset this is going to be a long process. This is just the beginning.

Eve Zuckoff: This is just the beginning. When this will come, we don't really know yet. But to protect the homes on low-lying roads from flooding, you have a couple options. You can take the hard engineering route and build a seawall or replace an old seawall. You can elevate the road. You can also turn to nature: put a dune in front of that road, plant eelgrass. You can also -- and this is actually on the table for these conversations -- reroute the road or even abandon it altogether. Managed retreat is what that's called. It's the fancy word for it. It is controversial, but it will likely be necessary at some places on the Cape over the next few decades.

Patrick Flanary: Abandoning a road. My gosh, that's for a whole other Morning Edition discussion I think.

Eve Zuckoff: I'll be back here.

Patrick Flanary:  No doubt. What about the people whose roads will never meet this criteria, even though it may seem problematic to certain families?

Eve Zuckoff: Yes, great question. Some people might be thrilled that their roads will not be considered as potential candidates for rerouting, of course. But others are saying, you know, this is an opportunity for the town to invest in my road. And if they don't do that, when will they get around to it? Will they help with adaptations before sea levels and flooding put all of our properties at greater risk? And one of those people actually spoke up at the first workshop in Yarmouth. So here is a resident named John Peterson talking about his road:

Jon Peterson: In terms of like the how critical is it for the transportation needs of the town, or anything that you know? I'm sure we'd probably be down on the list, but speaking just from a personal standpoint, you know, we're really hoping that something could be done.

Eve Zuckoff: This is the line. This is the quote that I just keep thinking about in this story because there's this kind of heartbreak to knowing your road is more likely to flood regularly than be built better, just based off how time consuming and expensive it is for towns to take action.

Patrick Flanary: Right. And there really are dozens of roads on the Cape that need to be much more resilient over the next few decades as they become impassable. So tell us, I guess, more about what's happening at these workshops. You attended the first one in Yarmouth earlier this week. I would think it's obvious in most towns which roads really need the work.

Eve Zuckoff: Well, that's the interesting thing. That the commission has brought on a coastal engineering firm called the Woods Hole Group to map out flood risk and critical assets on each road in each town. But those fancy mapping tools actually can't be local knowledge in many respects. So at these workshops, the Commission is asking people, 'Look, are there roads that actually people use all the time that we don't know about? Are there important local landmarks that we should consider as critical? Like, what are we missing?' And people have shared some really interesting insights. Again, in Yarmouth, people said, 'when you're looking at the criteria for what makes a road critical, are you considering the economic value of beaches, not just businesses? Are you measuring the value of boat ramps? Or will you give weight to roads that are majority year-round homeowners versus second homeowners?' Sometimes public meetings, to me, are more performative than anything, quite honestly, but there is actually a lot of nuance and use to these workshops and these conversations.

Patrick Flanary: Yeah, certainly. I mean, so many facets are tied to this. You start digging one hole and others seem to form.

Eve Zuckoff: That's right.

Patrick Flanary: You're like, you're mentioning these in real time and I'm like, 'Oh, yeah, yeah, what about that? Boat ramps and all that other stuff.' All right. Well, how do we join these workshops and what happens when they're all over? I understand this is going to take a couple of months to wrap up just this portion of the project. Then what happens?

Eve Zuckoff: Yes so we will have information on our website about how to join these workshops. [The next ones will be held via Zoom for Dennis and Sandwich on Dec. 7.] Seven towns have yet to have theirs. Three are already done. And after these workshops are over, the towns will select those two most high priority road segments, and the Woods Hole Group will offer three solutions with cost estimates to adapt those roads. That will probably happen this summer. And then it's kind of on towns to apply for the grants necessary to dive deeper and hopefully build out what was suggested. We know this can take quite a long time, but the hope is by 2030 that will be done because that's when many of sea level rise estimates get pretty intense.

Patrick Flanary: That's being liberal with a prediction, by the way; 2030, it's not that far away. Eve Zuckoff is on road patrol today, flooded road patrol. You've often reported on mitigating climate change. This, of course, is adapting to climate change.

Eve Zuckoff: Exactly.

Patrick Flanary: We want to have you back as soon as you can tell us more about it.

Eve Zuckoff: OK.

Patrick Flanary: Thanks for being here.

Eve Zuckoff: Thank you.