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How does climate change impact Colorado's infrastructure?

A CU Boulder professor is studying the impacts of climate change on infrastructure and said the effects are being felt now, so we checked with cities and counties.

DENVER — A CU Boulder professor studying the impacts of climate change on infrastructure said the effects are being felt now.

"Climate change has a huge impact on our transportation infrastructure, our roads and bridges," CU Boulder engineering professor Paul Chinowsky said. "Built to a small tolerance of heat and cold and rain versus what's happening."

Chinowsky said heat and cold will wear on steel, and that a lot of infrastructure was built four to five decades ago with a different climate. 

"Wearing at the surface of the bridges without proper maintenance," he said. "It will eventually fail if we continue on this trail." 

He said the impacts are being felt on roads now, where roads are breaking down faster, or repaving work not lasting as long. 

'We don't have to talk about five years from now," he said, "We talk about right now. It's just going to get worse."

We asked the city of Denver if they're seeing this problem. The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure wrote: 

"Right now, we are not seeing any changes to city infrastructure that we can directly connect to climate change. However, as we see and experience warmer temperatures, that will certainly factor in how we think long-term about our projects.    

Thanks to the voter-approved Elevate Denver Bond Program and other internal funding sources, we have maintenance dollars to support our bridges. Roughly $45 million was allocated in Elevate funding to support bridge upgrades. We also have a strong street paving program. This year, the program aims to pave 450 lane-miles of local, arterial and collector streets using $32.5 million in funding, including $2.5 million of Elevate money." 

The City of Golden shared that they are working on building out climate-focused infrastructure, including charging stations for electric vehicles, but   said they don't have specific examples of climate-related infrastructure problems that some other areas have experienced. 

At the Colorado Department of Transportation, resiliency is a big part the work they do. 

Chief Engineer Stephen Harelson said a direct correlation doesn't matter to him, whether it's climate, more people driving, or more cars on the road.  

"From my perspective it doesn't matter," he said. "We need to harden that infrastructure and be ready for it." 

He's talking about major weather events. It's why CDOT models out resiliency projects to help guide them on where to spend money.

"Chatfield State Reservoir, Bear Creek Reservoirs were built for resiliency, efforts after the 1965 flood," he said. "The Pueblo reservoir was built, same thing, to protect Pueblo from the Arkansas  River."

Harelson said more is being studied. 

"Where is the weak underbelly of I-70? What should we focus on, if that segment gets hurt, where does that traffic go? Glenwood Canyon is the poster child for that," he said. 

CDOT said resiliency is just one component, and they have to look at their fiscal realities too. 

Summit County officials also said a chunk of their funding comes from the federal government, and they're working to secure more to keep up with their road and bridge problems. A lot of the issues there are due to aging infrastructure. 

Chinowsky said it's more than just roads and bridges. He is also looking at water systems and if the electric grid can handle more people turning on the AC during heat waves, and whether homes have the right heating and cooling to keep their homes at a healthy temperature.

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