Communities May Be Faced with Elevating or Abandoning Coastal Highways

Coastal communities in the Ocean State will be faced with difficult choices in the not-so-distant future as the encroachment of the sea and more powerful storms increase flooding in low-lying areas. One of those difficult choices is deciding what to do with vulnerable highways.

Nearly 66 miles of coastal highways, most of which are smaller, local roads, already experience nuisance flooding during high tides. This can mean frequent road closures and overwhelmed storm drains. Maintaining these roads can be an expensive burden, thanks to costs associated with everything from debris cleanup and road repairs to loss of property value and disruptions in transportation that could impede tourism or emergency management.

Tidal splashover along Weekapaug Rd. in Westerly, R.I. Photo courtesy of MyCoast.org

According to a study done by Rhode Island’s Division of Statewide Planning, 175 miles of road are at risk from predicted sea level rise alone, while 573 miles are expected to be at risk from storm surge – pressing communities to think now about future infrastructure.

To help towns faced with elevating or abandoning roads, Rhode Island Sea Grant Law Fellow Olivia Thompson investigated the legal and policy considerations of both options. 

With guidance from Read Porter, senior staff attorney with the Rhode Island Sea Grant Legal Program, Thompson considered the process to either elevate or abandon affected roads. She found that Rhode Island does not have an established minimum elevation requirement for coastal highways. This gives municipalities flexibility when considering current and future flood elevations, although permits may be required depending on whether the newly elevated road will cause impacts to wetlands or submerged lands.

If municipalities are unable or unwilling to invest in elevating an often-flooded coastal highway, they may wish to end public responsibility for maintenance by legally abandoning the road,  but this can result in “substantial liability” for the municipality if adjacent landowners are deprived of access to their properties. Another option under the abandonment scenario would be for the municipality to relocate the road altogether, which would avert liability claims, provided the landowners were still able to access their properties via the new roads.

Proactive planning for coastal highways, according to the fact sheet co-authored by Thompson, will help Rhode Island municipalities adapt to sea level rise and safeguard local residents and the local economy while minimizing long-term municipal costs and liability.

“Continued maintenance, damages upon abandonment, or elevation or relocation all have the potential for substantial costs,” Porter said in an email. “Those costs could be financial and sometimes environmental or loss of public access. It’s likely that the ‘best’ option is going to depend on the particularities of any given road. We’re currently working on a companion piece looking at different ways to raise the needed funds – this should be available sometime this fall.”