A devastating flood in 2006 tested the El Paso region’s ability to deal with a natural disaster. Six years later, a relatively minor (2.5 magnitude) earthquake rattled the area, fortunately causing no injuries or damage, but still raising questions about what might have been. The events had two things in common: both were highly unusual occurrences, and both underscored the need for an effective plan to keep traffic moving in the aftermath of a catastrophic event.
Until now, the best any city or agency could do would be to assess the results of such an event and then act, using a responsive approach. Advances in computer modeling, however, now make a proactive plan more possible, potentially giving planners the head start they need to minimize the public-safety and economic consequences of a disaster.
Researchers from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) are developing such a plan, using computer simulation and modeling to develop appropriate responses to a disaster scenario involving the collapse of the I-10/US 54 interchange combined with a closure of the Bridge of the Americas port of entry into Mexico. In this example of a worst-case scenario, researchers are determining both the short- and long-term impacts on the transportation system and how the disruptions would affect the regional economy.
“An extreme event will have an immediate impact on both commuter traffic and commercial traffic, and it will also have impacts months after the event happens,” says TTI Associate Research Scientist Jeff Shelton, who manages TTI’s El Paso Program. “We now have the ability to anticipate the impact of both the immediate and longer-term effects on both sides of the border, and that’s something we could not do before now.”
The research findings should make local agencies better able to:
- identify those areas that would be most adversely affected by traffic pattern changes,
- predict traffic pattern changes,
- pinpoint where corrections to existing traffic control, and demand management might be needed, and
- identify and recommend alternate routes to divert traffic from affected areas.
Apart from the mobility-related impacts, the researchers say, extreme events carry significant public-safety consequences, sometimes severely limiting how emergency vehicles can make their way to, from or through affected areas.
The research team is also doing an economic impact analysis to determine the financial costs associated with extreme events. Extensive traffic delays and lost productivity can cripple the supply chains that feed products to a vast network of manufacturers on both sides of the border, and the associated expenses add up quickly. In addition, several state and federal policy questions arise from such an event:
- Would toll rates at other ports of entry be relaxed during reconstruction?
- Would Customs and Border Protection increase agents at other bridges to alleviate the additional strain of vehicles shifting to other bridges?
- All construction projects must go through the environmental process — the Federal Highway Administration requires documentation for reconstruction under the National Environmental Policy Act. Due to the huge economic burden this event places on the economy, can the documentation process be expedited?
“The total amount of U.S.-Mexico trade is about $300 billion a year. Over $30 billion of that passes through El Paso,” says TTI Senior Research Scientist Rafael Aldrete, regional manager for TTI’s offices in San Antonio and El Paso. “So any disruption to that commercial activity would be massive. With a proactive plan, we are better able to minimize that disruption.”
The study is being funded by the Center for International Intelligent Transportation Research, with additional support from the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). MPO officials expect the research to provide insight and possible improvements to existing emergency response plans. In addition, they expect the results to improve the overall MPO planning process and the Horizon 2040 Metropolitan Plan now in development.
“Disasters typically happen with little or no warning, and the consequences can be catastrophic,” Shelton says. “The best that we can do is to be ready for anything. That’s a very lofty goal, but we’re a big step closer now.”