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updated: 8/20/2012 1:32 PM

Can our roads weather the storm?

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  • Historic levels of snow stopped the region in its tracks February 2011.

      Historic levels of snow stopped the region in its tracks February 2011.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Excessive rains battered the suburbs in July 2011, shutting down arterials like Landmeier Road in Des Plaines.

    Excessive rains battered the suburbs in July 2011, shutting down arterials like Landmeier Road in Des Plaines.
    Daily Herald file photo, 2011

  • Temperatures over 100 degrees played a role in a fatal derailment in Glenview, a preliminary investigation shows.

    Temperatures over 100 degrees played a role in a fatal derailment in Glenview, a preliminary investigation shows.
    Courtesy ABC 7


Record-breaking heat buckles a railway track July 4, causing a derailment, bridge collapse and the death of a Glenview couple. A freak blizzard Feb. 1, 2011, engulfs Lake Shore Drive in snow, stranding motorists and commuters in the cold for hours. Unprecedented rainfall July 23, 2011, floods the suburbs, shutting down major roadways and intersections.

Uncommon weather is becoming common. This July was the third hottest on record in Illinois, falling behind 1921 and 1955, according to the National Weather Service. The heat wave came after a tough 2011 that brought the Midwest dangerous rainfalls, tornadoes and February's "Snowmageddon."

And when we get weather extremes, roads, bridges and railways are right in the eye of the storm, which is putting the issue on the radar of the transportation community.

"The vulnerability of the nation's transportation systems and the road network to long-term changes in climate conditions and in the shorter term to changes in weather is a growing concern to many state transportation officials," states an American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials report from May.

"Infrastructure built today is already experiencing wider climate variations and will likely face very different environmental conditions 30 to 50 years from now."

One region taking extreme weather seriously is Washington state. The transportation department there recently assessed the impact of climate change on roads and bridges and found where its vulnerabilities are.

"For us, it's about the long-term safety of the traveling public," WSDOT policy branch manager Carol Lee Roalkvam said.

Researchers found potential issues with state-owned railway lines and identified flood-prone roads.

As a result, the state is learning how to improve its infrastructure to resist damage from weather extremes, such as using different building materials, Roalkvam said. But not everything can be solved by building, she added. "It's about finding where we're vulnerable and what strategies we can use to address that vulnerability."

Closer to home, the average Illinois temperature is projected to increase by a range of 2 to 12 degrees in the next 80 years, state research indicates. "All the modeling results show Illinois will get warmer -- the question is -- will it get wetter?" state climatologist Jim Angel said.

For Northwestern University transportation expert Joseph Schofer, the bad-weather news is a crucible to test the nation's infrastructure.

Civic leaders need to think more strategically about worst-case scenarios and how to reduce risk by better planning and communication, thinks Schofer, an engineering professor and director of the Infrastructure Technology Institute.

Chicago learned a hard lesson when multiple drivers were stranded on Lake Shore Drive in the 2011 blizzard. "Once you have that experience, you can step back and say, 'Mother Nature sent us a signal that our operating strategy doesn't work under these conditions,'" Schofer said.

He gives the example of how New York City leaders learned from the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans and a snowstorm that crippled the city in 2010. Officials later took the drastic step of shutting down the subway system in advance of Hurricane Irene's arrival last August, which many considered the right call.

Climate change has become a political football, but weather data shouldn't be debatable, Schofer said. "What caused it doesn't matter, it's the effects we have to deal with. If you get a bunch of bad years, it doesn't make sense to say, 'this is going away.'"

In addition to better planning, engineering can come to the rescue with solutions like building culverts to carry more water, raising roads in flood-prone areas, designing bridges and highways with a greater tolerance for heat- or cold-related expansion.

"This is a hard time to do this, governments are having a hard time finding the money to do the maintenance to keep the system going," Schofer said.

"But what you can do is -- when you do modifications and upgrades over time, make sure you take advantage of your experience and prepare yourself for a future that's different from the past."

So what's Illinois doing about extreme weather, given the state is no stranger to freakish events?

While the Illinois Department of Transportation does not formally design roads and bridges based on climate change, "we have adopted some measures to address any impacts from global warming on the state's transportation system," spokesman Guy Tridgell said.

"For example, IDOT recently adjusted the life design for asphalt we use that takes into account extreme temperatures for the hottest month based on 30 years of data. State bridges have expansion joints designed for the extremest of temperatures from 30 degrees below zero to 130 degrees."

What else? IDOT is working on a new automated system that sends out alerts when there are high water levels at bridges that are susceptible to damage, Tridgell said.

"This is something that's on our radar," he added, citing a 2011 workshop on global warming and a future session with the Federal Highway Administration on climate change.

Got some thoughts about extreme weather and infrastructure? Drop me a line at

And if you're interested in Washington State DOT's climate assessment, go to

One more thing

So what about railroads? There is a lot of concern about track safety following the Glenview derailment, thought to be caused by a sunkink, or heat-related buckle.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin wrote the Association of American Railroads in July about "an ever-growing number of weather-related disasters." He asked the AAR to do all it could to ensure the industry has "the proper training, inspection plans and committed personnel to deal with excessive weather events."

Bob Kollmar, AAR executive director of engineering, communications and train control, said railroads have been battling the elements for decades.

"It's not a reactionary thing," he said. "When railroads experience extreme heat or cold, they watch their track structure. If there's a low-lying area and there's been flooding, a track inspector will be out there every day."

Tactics include increasing inspections in cases of heat or raising rails in flood-prone areas.

"With our track inspection vehicles, every year the level of sophistication increases, they can measure track in minute amounts," Kollmar said.

As for training, it doesn't matter what part of the country a railroad owns track. Employees are drilled in temperature extremes and railroads typically share best practices with each other, Kollmar said.

Your voice

Peter VandeMotter of Mundelein had this to say about high-speed rail.

"I hope the 'High Speed' trains from Chicago to St. Louis work as planned. It remains to be seen how well they can make the trip in 4 hours on the UP track shared with freight trains.

"I am less enthusiastic about using the Rock Island, once famous for its 'Rockets,' for the final approach. Metra's fastest expresses make the trip five minutes slower than its Heritage Corridor trains. Amtrak trains are scheduled to make it in under an hour, but it should be faster. There is also the (slight) possibility of a transfer station at 35th and Archer, where passengers could switch to the CTA to Midway. Many high speed rail lines in other countries go to the airport."

Gridlock alert

IDOT's got something special in store for Will County drivers Aug. 27. Expect lane reductions on sections of Route 53 in Romeoville, Joliet and Elwood. The project ends Oct. 31 (perhaps in order to avoid having to give out candy to motorists).

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