On a windy stretch of the Alaskan Peninsula, one small fishing town, King Cove, wants Uncle Sam to build a road along a rocky coast. Some 4,000 miles away, residents of Dare County, N.C., await a replacement bridge across an inlet within a wildlife refuge. In neighboring Chincoteague, Va., another battle persists about how to replace a parking lot damaged by storms.
For years, contestants in each instance have couched their issues in terms of communities versus conservation.
These dividing lines obscure much more complex challenges replicated along much of America’s coastline. As Congress debates how much to spend on infrastructure, the relevant question is not just: How much can we afford? A deeper question is: What should we buy?
The problems of King Cove, Dare County and Chincoteague exhibit a larger national challenge. Some 60,000 miles of coastal highways in the United States already experience periodic flooding from coastal storms. By one estimate, 10,000 structures lie within areas that will erode away within the next 10 years.
In 2011, Hurricane Irene opened a new inlet on Hatteras Island in North Carolina, delinking island inhabitants from the mainland. In one 12-year period, North Carolina’s Department of Transportation spent on average $4 million per year to repair and protect the bridge that links the island to the mainland.
At Chincoteague, in less than 50 years, the beach has receded 115 yards. Each time a storm washes away a beach parking lot, the National Park Service spends more than a half-million dollars to fix it.
The proposed route for the coastal highway that would serve the 800 residents of King Cove and traverse the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge regularly faces fierce winds and waves that batter shorelines. Costs to build just nine miles of road could exceed $30 million, excluding long-term maintenance and repair costs.
The infrastructure decisions at King Cove, Dare County and Chincoteague present opportunities to reshape how communities and federal, state and local lawmakers think about meeting the infrastructure needs of this nation. The choices are not between communities and conservation. The fundamental choices are between cost-effective and durable solutions that take into account the dynamic forces of nature and those that do not.
What matters is not just the upfront cost of infrastructure, but the full cost over the lifetime of these structures.
Consider the bridge on Hatteras Island. Proposals to replace the bridge with a parallel bridge would require an endless cycle of spending to stabilize the land. Looked at through a long-term lens, building a longer bridge that avoids the ever- changing forms of the island is a better investment for taxpayers — and results in fewer environmental effects.
At King Cove, taxpayers have spent $37.5 million to enhance health care services, improve the airstrip and link the community — through hovercraft ferry transportation — to nearby Cold Bay and its airport. Despite the success of the hovercraft, the community wants road access to the Cold Bay airport. Infrastructure decisions need to focus on resilience — the ability of the infrastructure to function reliably within a dynamic environment. In the case of King Cove, this means taking into account the winds, storms and erosion of this setting. A good place to start could be to enhance the effectiveness of the existing hovercraft system.
For many coastal communities, solutions may reside in rethinking the role of natural systems. Coastal dunes and wetlands play a substantial role in mitigating damage from coastal storms. For example, solutions to transportation and access issues in Chincoteague may require sustaining the natural system of dunes to help protect the whole community from future coastal floods, while devising more parking and user-friendly transport to and from the refuge.
This nation cannot address problems of inadequate infrastructure by spending billions of dollars on the infrastructure solutions of the past century. And with thousands of miles of sensitive and changing coastlines, this nation’s communities cannot afford to turn these infrastructure issues into old-fashioned debates about economies versus the environment.
Lynn Scarlett was deputy secretary and Lyle Laverty was an assistant secretary at the Interior Department under President George W. Bush.