SEPTA Team Awarded Grant for Climate Adaptation Plan

April 27, 2012

Partnership with ICF International & DVRPC Selected for Funding

Last summer, the Philadelphia region was pummeled by a hurricane (Irene) and tropical storm (Lee) that dumped more than 10 inches of rain in just 12 days. This one-two punch flooded large portions of the SEPTA system, resulting in the first planned suspension of service in the organization's 40-plus year history.

While back-to-back tropical-force storms are an anomaly, the increasing severity and frequency of heavy rain events is in fact indicative of an increasing trend towards extreme climate variability. Since 2010, the five counties of southeastern Pennsylvania have experienced:

  • The snowiest winter ever (2010 - 78.7 in)
  • The warmest summer ever (2010 - 79.6 degrees)
  • The most days over 90 degrees ever (2010 - 55)
  • The warmest July ever (2011 - 82.4 degrees)
  • The wettest month ever (Aug. 2011 - 19.8 in)
  • The wettest year ever (2011 - 64.3 in)

In its August 2011 report, Flooded Bus Barns & Buckled Rails, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) notes that this trend is expected to continue: "The biggest increases in very heavy precipitation over the last 50 years have been in the Northeast, home of some of the largest and oldest rail transit systems. The trend is very likely to continue as warmer air holds more water vapor evaporating from the world's oceans and land surface. ... Rain events that now occur only once every 20 years are projected to happen every four to 15 years, depending on location, and dump 10 to 25 percent more rain."

As one "of the largest and oldest rail transit systems," an increase in the frequency and severity of very heavy precipitation poses a significant risk to SEPTA. Much of SEPTA's infrastructure was built during an era in which climate change was not considered in the design, engineering, and placement of assets. These assets, many now beyond their useful life, become particularly vulnerable to failure in the event of extreme weather.

Take for example, SEPTA's Manayunk/Norristown Line. Built in the early 20th century by the Reading Railroad, long stretches operate within hundreds of feet of the Schuylkill River. Much of the right of way is mere feet above the river banks. When the river level rises, the line is in imminent jeopardy of flooding.

For this reason, it is alarming that four of the 10 highest Schuylkill River crests on record at Norristown have occurred since 2005. These events have resulted in significant service disruptions for the more than 10,000 passengers that rely on the line each weekday. In many cases, these riders have been forced to find other means of transportation entirely.

Four of Top 10 Highest Schuylkill River Crests on Record Have Occurred Since 2005
Date of Flood Crest (Ft) Description
6/23/1972 25.10 Hurricane Agnes
9/17/1999 22.00 Hurricane Floyd
8/24/1933 21.00 Strong Category 1 Storm
8/28/2011 19.76 Hurricane Irene
9/13/1971 19.30 Stalled Front
6/28/2006 19.13 Stalled Front
1/20/1996 19.00 Rapid Snowmelt
10/1/2010 18.31 Tropical Storm Nicole
10/19/1991 18.00 Retrograding Low-Pressure System
10/9/2005 17.92 Tropical Storm Tammy
Source: NOAA

SEPTA is aware of these vulnerabilities and has developed a "playbook" for dealing with extreme weather. For example, in the days leading up to Hurricane Irene, maintenance personnel covered subway vents, prepared pump rooms, relocated vehicles out of known flood-prone areas, and called-in tree-trimmers for stand-by duty. While these efforts proved highly successful in mitigating costs and impacts of recent events, the ad hoc emergency measures do not address the fundamental and systemic risks associated with the increasing frequency and severity of heavy rain events.

Now, with assistance from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), SEPTA is adding to this playbook a proactive plan for addressing increasing climate variability. In December 2011, a team comprised of SEPTA, ICF International, and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) was selected for funding under the FTA's Climate Change Adaptation Assessment Pilot Program. The grant was one of seven nationwide. Its funding will be used to conduct a pilot vulnerability and risk assessment of the Manayunk/Norristown Line. The goal: to develop a comprehensive strategy for adapting the design and engineering of assets, maintenance schedules, systems and operations planning based on the best climate science projections for the Philadelphia region.

FTA Climate Change Adaptation Assessment Pilot Program - Grant Recipients
Project Location FTA Funding
Georgia Tech & MARTA Atlanta, GA $175,000
LA Metro Los Angeles, CA $175,000
Chicago Transit Authority Chicago, IL $159,500
Texas Transportation Institute Galveston, TX; Houston, TX; Tampa, FL $146,200
San Francisco BART San Francisco, CA $150,000
Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority Seattle, WA $105,000
SEPTA, DVRPC, & ICF Int'l Philadelphia, PA $144,087
Source: Federal Transit Administration

Proactive climate adaptation planning is, in its essence, nothing more than responsible risk management. The FTA-funded study, to last 15 months, will follow a traditional risk assessment approach and:

  • Identify current and future climate hazards relevant to public transit agency assets and operations;
  • Characterize the risk of climate change on agency infrastructure and operations;
  • Develop initial adaptation strategies; and
  • Link strategies to agency organizational structures and activities.

This planning process will inform SEPTA's capital, operating, and maintenance efforts with a better understanding of costs and impacts, recommended techniques to minimize service disruptions, and a transferrable approach that can be applied to other parts of SEPTA's expansive service network.

Ultimately, the impacts of the grant could be even broader. Recognizing the cross-collaborative and multi-disciplinary nature of climate adaptation planning, the project team has engaged a wide-reaching stakeholder group that will serve in an advisory capacity for the duration of the project. The first stakeholder meeting, held on March 14 at DVRPC, included representatives from other regional mass transit providers as well as federal, state, and local agencies. This group will be used as a vehicle for integrating with other regional adaptation initiatives and for developing the capacity to partner in building a more climate-resilient region.