Earlier this year, four Tampa Bay mayors were asked to explain how the region should respond to climate change. They all talked about transportation, stressing the importance of an efficient, accessible public transportation system to help cut vehicle emissions.
Allison Yeh, the executive planner and sustainability coordinator at Plan Hillsborough, has spent years researching how transportation and planning policy can prepare for and respond to environmental challenges. She was project manager for the Resilient Tampa Bay Transportation Federal Highway Administration Pilot Project, which examined the region’s vulnerability to potential extreme weather and provided strategies to meet and recover from those impacts. Among the project’s findings was that 115 miles of critical roads in the county are vulnerable to storm surge and inland flooding.
Yeh, who has been with Plan Hillsborough for 14 years, spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about the planning organization’s coordinated efforts in resiliency and sustainability. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you first become interested in transportation and planning?
I became interested in the how land use and transportation are inextricability linked to the welfare of the community during my graduate studies for Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan.
What do you want the public to know or better understand about the region’s vulnerability to flooding?
The Tampa Bay region an important state hub for the tourism, higher education, commercial shipping, medical services, business services, defense security and agricultural sectors — and one of the most inundation-vulnerable areas in the country. Approximately 58% of the population lives in areas at risk from flooding.
While our area has not had a direct hit from a hurricane in 100 years, we experience frequent storm events and persistent flooding with Tropical Storm Eta recently passing through in 2020. The Resilient Tampa Bay Study conducted by the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization, Forward Pinellas, Pasco Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council found that a Category 3 hurricane with sea level rise will inundate 28% of the roadways in the region and 9 inches of rain in 24 hours would flood 12% of the roads.
You manage the MPO’s Unified Planning Work Program. What does the program do?
The Unified Planning Work Program is a comprehensive 2-year plan of the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization’s work activities, budget and focus areas. Broad emphasis areas in the next two years include safety, equity, resilience, emerging mobility options and the 2050 Long Range Transportation Plan update. The program is developed with input from local governments (Hillsborough County, Tampa, Temple Terrace, and Plant City), the public, agencies and reviewed by the Florida Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration.
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What is the most important step Hillsborough County could take to improve the resiliency of its transportation system?
We’ve already taken an important step by incorporating the findings from the Resilient Tampa Bay Transportation study findings into our 2045 long range transportation plan. It’s Time Hillsborough aligned with federal regulations requiring transportation plans to consider strategies that improve the resilience and reliability of the transportation and address storm water mitigation.
The TPO’s plan recommended protecting 250 miles of vulnerable and critical roads from heavy rain and storm surge with shoreline protection, pavement hardening, and storm water drainage improvements. It also recommended increased funding in capital improvement programs for stormwater drainage and hardening of transportation infrastructure over the next 20 years to increase the resiliency of the surface transportation system. The TPO is not an implementing organization, so we continually coordinate with local jurisdictions, state and local agencies, and planning partners to help incorporate resiliency improvements as a part of planned road maintenance or construction.