IntroductionMegaprojects are large-scale, complex public works projects that typically cost >$500  million US dollars (USD), take years to plan and construct (sometimes longer than the tenure of government leaders), involve a diverse group of public and private stakeholders, and promise great benefits to some interests, sometimes at the expense of others (Altshuler and Luberoff 2003; Flyvbjerg et al. 2003b).Storm surge barriers and levees are coastal flood defense megaprojects that are technically viable options for many densely populated areas to manage rare coastal flood events (e.g., a 100-year flood; including floods made worse by sea-level rise, e.g., the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier in Providence, Rhode Island; Fig. 1) (Aerts et al. 2014; Jonkman et al. 2013; Mooyaart and Jonkman 2017; Morang 2016; US National Research Council 2014). For example, in 2012, the Stamford (Connecticut) storm surge barrier prevented an estimated $25 million USD (unadjusted) in damages to businesses and homes from high waters produced by Hurricane Sandy. Stamford’s mayor said, “[The barrier] was extremely effective in protecting areas that would have been flooded completely by this storm. It made all the difference in the world” (Navarro 2012). Densely populated cities, like Stamford, often lack the space to take advantage of natural defenses (e.g., mangrove or wetland restoration) and other coastal adaptation options (e.g., managed retreat, informed land-use planning, building codes, and insurance) may conflict with goals for local development.The Civil Works program of USACE, the principal federal agency responsible for studying and designing coastal flood defense infrastructure (USACE 1998), is well positioned to manage sea-level rise and coastal flooding given that it has a wealth of knowledge in scientists and engineers, more than 60 years of experience with coastal risk reduction, a direct connection to Congress and the powerful fundraising ability of the federal government, and, to some extent, coastal jurisdiction through its permitting authorities. USACE is currently proposing storm surge barriers and levees for several US cities, including New York City, Norfolk, Miami, and the greater Houston metropolitan area (Table 1) (USACE 2016, 2018a, b, 2019b, 2020a, b, c). Non-USACE entities have also proposed similar projects (City and County of San Francisco 2016; City of New York 2013, 2020); for example, Galveston Bay Park, a vision for Houston and Galveston Bay (Galveston Bay: SSPEED Center 2020; Sustainable Solutions Lab 2018). In total, these efforts are projected to cost between $70 and $193 billion USD. To date, only a few of these coastal flood protection megaprojects have broken ground, despite most being designated as technically feasible (from an engineering standpoint) and economically beneficial (i.e., benefits greater than costs). One would conclude that sound engineering and favorable economics are necessary but, by themselves, insufficient for implementation.Table 1. An incomplete list of proposed public works coastal flood protection projects in the USTable 1. An incomplete list of proposed public works coastal flood protection projects in the USProjectLocationStrategyYear proposedLead agencyProject costStatus (as of 2020)Boston Harbor Surge BarrierBostonLevee/barrier2018UMass Boston$6.5 to 11.8 billionProposedEast Side Coastal Resiliency ProjectNew YorkLevee/nonstructural2014NYC/HUD$1.5 billionUnder constructionLower Manhattan Climate Resiliency ProjectNew YorkCoastal advance/fill2019NYC$10 billionProposedEmbarcadero SeawallSan FranciscoSeawall2018City of San Francisco$5 billionProposedRed Hook Integrated Flood Protection SystemNew YorkTo be determined2013NYC$0.1 billionUndergoing a redesignCoastal Texas Protection and Restoration ProjectCoastal TexasLevee/barrier/nonstructural2015USACE$23.1 to 31.8 billionProposedGalveston Bay ParkGalveston, TexasLevee/barrier/nonstructural2020SSPEED$2.3 to 2.8 billionProposedSouth Shore of Staten Island CSRM ProjectNew YorkLevee/nonstructural1993USACE$0.6 billionUnder constructionCharleston Peninsula: A Coastal Flood Risk Management ProjectCharleston, South CarolinaLevee/seawall2020USACE$1.1 billionProposedCity of Norfolk CSRM ProjectNorfolk, VirginiaLevee/barrier/nonstructural2015USACE$0.9 to 2.3 billionAuthorizedMiami-Dade Back Bay CSRM ProjectMiamiLevee/barrier/nonstructural2020USACE$0.9 to 5.2 billionProposedCollier County CSRM ProjectNaples, FloridaLevee/barrier/nonstructural2020USACE$2.2 billionProposedFairfield and New Haven Counties, CT CSRM ProjectFairfield and New Haven, ConnecticutLevee/seawall/pumps2019USACE$0.05 to 0.3 billionProposedNew York–New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries ProjectNew YorkLevee/barrier/nonstructural2019USACE$15 to 119 billionPlanning suspendedRecent media attention has highlighted the political contentiousness of coastal flood protection megastructures. In Miami, a USACE proposal for a levee system received strong opposition from the public and government officials, who instead advocated for nature-based solutions. The chair of Miami’s Downtown Development Authority proclaimed, “[N]obody wants to see the Berlin wall in the middle of Biscayne Bay” (Allen 2020; Harris 2020). In New York City, a detailed plan developed over several years between city officials and several Lower East Side advocacy groups was abruptly replaced with a new design that was less popular with locals. City officials defended the new plan saying it could be completed quicker (in three years as opposed to five) and would not lead to costly traffic restrictions that would have been necessary under the original proposal (Hanania 2019). In February 2020, an in-progress USACE study of coastal flood protection within New York Harbor and its tributaries was abruptly halted just weeks after President Trump expressed his disapproval of the project, leading to speculation that his opinion may have influenced agency staff (Barnard 2020). If coastal flood protection megaprojects are to remain politically feasible climate adaptation strategies, a better understanding of the complexity that politics adds to these projects is needed (Javeline 2014). This may give coastal managers a priori information regarding the political feasibility of storm surge barriers, levees, and other coastal megaprojects.In this study, we use archive materials and process tracing to evaluate whether existing megaproject theories can explain why one USACE storm surge barrier project broke ground and why another did not advance beyond the planning stage. We also propose other plausible mechanisms for explaining megaproject outcomes. The first project, the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, was completed in January 1966 at a cost of $16.2 million (unadjusted) and currently protects roughly 1.1  km2 of downtown Providence and $2 billion worth of property (Kuffner 2019) (Fig. 1). The second case, the Narragansett Bay Barriers, was a $90 million proposal (unadjusted) for three massive rock barriers with ungated navigational openings placed at the entrance to Narragansett and Mt. Hope Bays (Fig. 2). Narragansett Bay is a coastal estuary consisting of 456  km2 of total water area and about a dozen islands of various sizes. Roughly 26 cities and towns dot the shoreline of Narragansett Bay (17 in Rhode Island and nine in Massachusetts). Providence, the capital and most populated city of Rhode Island, sits at the head of the bay, while the city of Newport lies at the entrance of the east passage. Narragansett Bay is noted for its shell fishing industry, prevalence of vacation homes, boaters, and being home to a large naval base in Newport. President Eisenhower’s summer White House was also located in Newport in 1958 and 1960 (Hitchcock 2018). The Narragansett Bay Barrier project was ultimately cancelled in 1966 after 10 years of study, despite being deemed technically feasible and economically justifiable by USACE (Fig. 3).Similar empirical case studies have opened the “black box” of politics and identified plausible mechanisms and processes that have determined when climate adaptation projects do and do not break ground (Biesbroek et al. 2014; Bisaro and Hinkel 2016; Hinkel et al. 2018; Measham et al. 2011; Sieber et al. 2018; Wellstead et al. 2014). Doing so may give coastal managers a priori information regarding the political feasibility of projects. While some studies exist for Dutch flood projects (Bijker 2002; Disco 2002), to our knowledge, no such assessment has been performed specific to USACE coastal megaprojects. The USACE has been well-studied (Ferejohn 1974; Maass 1951; Mazmanian and Nienaber 1979; O’Neill 2006; Pilkey and Dixon 1996), including some political aspects of conceiving, designing, and implementing coastal flood defense megaprojects (US National Research Council 1999, 2004, 2011, 2014). However, no detailed case studies have been presented, and little attention has been given to siting-related opposition.The remainder of this paper is organized as follows. We first give an overview of existing theories for why some megaprojects have advanced beyond the planning stages and others have not. Then, using process tracing and original archive research, we present an analysis of the Rhode Island storm surge barrier cases and describe plausible mechanisms that led to each project outcome. A detailed written timeline of events is given in Appendix S1 in the Supplemental Materials. Next, we examine the ability of existing megaproject theories to explain each case outcome and identify other potential mechanisms that could inform why some projects advance while others do not. Last, we provide some recommendations to the USACE and conclude.Discussion and Applicability to Modern-Day Storm Surge Barrier EffortsWe find that existing theories of megaproject outcomes related to siting disputes and strategic manipulation can, in part, explain the outcomes of USACE’s Rhode Island megaproject proposals. We also propose additional plausible factors that can play a role. First, strong and consistent public demand for flood protection appears to encourage support from elected officials; the latter is critical for shepherding projects through Congress. Second, the passage of time can cause memories of disaster to fade, leading to decreased public support for flood protection megaprojects. Flood risk reduction tactics that are smaller, cheaper, more aesthetically pleasing, and faster to implement can also cause decreased support for megaprojects.Siting Disputes and NIMBY ConcernsThe Narragansett Bay barrier project had several features of a siting dispute. USACE faced loud and relentless opposition from the public, businesses, and some elected officials. Significant opposition to the project resulted from the public’s concerns over the risk of degrading Narragansett Bay’s unique natural beauty (e.g., structures themselves are aesthetically displeasing, increased water pollution), threats to maritime travel (recreational, commercial, and naval), and risks of adverse impacts on complex ecosystems (including marine life). In response to public opposition, elected officials were unwilling to move the project forward.NIMBY concerns were absent from the Fox Point barrier project. The siting of the barrier in Providence impacted few of the same organized interests that opposed the Bay barriers (e.g., maritime and environmental interests). The Providence River, across which the barrier was built, was already polluted, so there was no increased threat to marine life. The water behind the barrier also had no maritime navigational purpose. The only opposition came from property owners outside the planned protection area. Such conditions are unlikely to exist after over half a century of improvements in water quality (Robinson et al. 2003; Smith et al. 1987).The placement of storm surge barriers across waterways continues to raise concerns regarding environmental impacts (Royte 2019; K. Ong, personal communication, 2018; J. Roff and P. Gallay, unpublished data, 2018; S. M. Stringer, personal communication, 2019; USACE 2019a), including but not limited to impeding natural tidal flows, habitat destruction, changes in sedimentation rates, trapping pollutants, and degrading water quality (salinity, temperature, circulation, dissolved oxygen, nutrient concentrations, and algal blooms). Studies conducted on the environmental impacts of the Delta Works Projects in the Netherlands and the mobile flap gate system (Mo.S.E.) in Venice, Italy, support these concerns (Bakker et al. 1994; Eelkema et al. 2011; Nienhuis and Smaal 1994; Smaal and Nienhuis 1992; Tognin et al. 2021; van der Tol and Scholten 1997), but impacts remain hard to forecast with the accuracy and precision desired by both modern environmental laws and those in opposition (e.g., the public and environmental NGOs) (Flyvbjerg et al. 2003a; Fukuyama 2017; Ortolano and Shepherd 1995).Some scenic regions, such as Narragansett Bay, may be inherently politically unfit for coastal megaprojects due to heavy recreational boating use, commercial fisheries, and cherished natural beauty. The importance of preserving unique natural beauty has been brought up by those opposed to engineered projects in New York City [past (Nolan 1972; US National Research Council 1971) and present (Royte 2019; K. Ong, personal communication, 2018; J. Roff and P. Gallay, unpublished data, 2018; S. M. Stringer, personal communication, 2019)]. Recently, Riverkeeper, an environmental NGO, declared that a USACE storm surge barrier proposal for the New York Harbor region would “threaten the very life of the Hudson River” (Riverkeeper 2018). Also, in Miami, critics argued that a seawall would block views and hinder access to the water (Allen 2020, p. 6; A. Weber, personal communication, 2020). Similar claims were made during the planning of the Eastern Scheldt Barrier in the Netherlands (Bijker 2002; Disco 2002), suggesting that these experiences are not unique to the US.While USACE projects are still required to be reviewed by the public, modern environmental protection laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Water Act (CWA), and the Endangered Species Act have made megaproject planning a more complex legal process (Mazmanian and Nienaber 1979; US National Research Council 2011). For example, under NEPA, USACE projects that pose significant harm to the quality of the natural environment must analyze and publicly disclose a proposal’s environmental impacts through an EIS and receive public comment on the proposal and its alternatives (Luther 2008). Some states and cities duplicate powers and add more project hurdles (e.g., New York City and California) (Buzbee 2014; Steinhauer 2005). While this process is not a direct legal barrier to project implementation, the transparency of potential ecological harm it provides can trigger public opposition and legal challenges (Buzbee 2014). However, some environmental laws can block projects altogether. Under Section 404 of the CWA, projects cannot be built in coastal waterways unless (1) the sponsoring agency proves they need to be built in the water, or (2) the project will not cause “significant degradation” to important aquatic habitats (Copeland 2016). Despite the complexity these laws add, the Narragansett Bay barrier experience proved that the current stricter review process is not necessarily to blame for past and ongoing megaproject siting disputes.Environmental concerns do not block all coastal flood protection megaprojects outright; they do not always even emerge at all. For example, the South Shore Staten Island Project has progressed from an initial feasibility report in 2015 to congressional approval. Construction is slated to begin in early 2021 (Michel 2020). Also in New York City, the East Side Coastal Resilience Project (not affiliated with USACE) recently received approval, despite considerable community opposition, and in Norfolk, a USACE project consisting of a series of structural defense measures, including storm surge barriers, has been congressionally authorized [Section 401. Project Authorizations in H.R. 133, 116th Congress, 2nd Session]. Future work should examine these cases and better understand why these projects progressed without significant environmental concerns while others did not [e.g., other projects in New York City, such as storm surge barriers in Jamaica Bay (Secretary of the Army 1965; US National Research Council 1971) and New York Harbor (Barnard 2020) and a levee proposed for Coney Island (Nolan 1972)]. For example, naval installations in Norfolk may have increased the federal government’s interest in flood protection there.Concerns over environmental harm incite debate over how to balance environmental protection with the socioeconomic benefits from infrastructure projects. Some scholars who study infrastructure argue that there is too much emphasis on environmental regulation over public safety and economic growth (Fukuyama 2017; Howard 2015; Kagan 1991, 2001), while others suggest it is warranted (Ortolano and Shepherd 1995), particularly in light of USACE’s history of understating environmental impacts (Taylor 1984). In this regard, USACE often finds itself trying to achieve goals and objectives that are not consistent or compatible with one another (e.g., both credible protection from rare storm surge events and improvement in environmental quality) (US National Research Council 2011).Strategic ManipulationStrategic manipulation of BCAs or other decision-making analyses is a tactic for project proponents to advance megaproject proposals. Unlike most examples of strategic manipulation that go undetected, we found that Rhode Island residents increasingly believed USACE was intentionally biasing its analysis in support of the Narragansett Bay Barrier project. A critical element was downplaying adverse environmental impacts that the public perceived or intuited to be likely. We also found evidence of USACE leadership calling the public an adversary in their project development efforts. These factors alienated the public and led to strong opposition of the bay barrier project and, ultimately, its cancellation. Such sentiments continue today. Critics of the storm surge barriers planned for New York and New Jersey derided USACE for a lack of transparency, poor public outreach, and a short comment period (Fallon 2018; Hellauer 2018). Critics have also called USACE’s public outreach process “woefully inadequate” (Riverkeeper 2018).Public Demand for the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier Increased Support from Elected OfficialsThe Rhode Island storm surge barrier projects highlight the intricate and important role that elected officials play in advancing USACE megaprojects. Elected officials heeded demands from local businesses for permanent flood protection by continuing to support the Fox Point Barrier years after Hurricane Carol. In the case of the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, the absence of opposition from community boards, civic organizations, and environmental groups proved beneficial for amassing support from the public. Support from Rhode Island’s congressional delegation proved to be critical for pushing the Fox Point Barrier through Congress; without it, the project had little chance of being authorized or appropriated.Support from congressional delegates is still needed to shepherd projects through Congress (Knopman et al. 2017). (Generally, at least four acts of Congress are required between study authorization and appropriations.) USACE’s ongoing South Shore Staten Island Project in New York City (a system of levees and raised embankments estimated to cost $615 million) (USACE 2016) recently highlighted the importance of congressional support in federal projects. New York Congressman Max Rose and Senator Chuck Schumer led an effort to pass new legislation that allowed USACE to build a section of the seawall in Great Kills Park, part of Gateway National Recreation Area (Michel 2020), and in Virginia, the entire congressional delegation recently requested additional planning funds for a series of USACE projects in Norfolk (13News Now Staff 2020).Alternative Risk Reduction Measures that Are More Environmentally Friendly and Faster to Implement Are Often Preferred over Storm Surge Barriers and Other MegaprojectsThe slow speed at which storm surge barriers and other USACE megaprojects move from an initial proposal to implementation has also encouraged support for alternative strategies that some believe can be implemented faster (Cusick 2020; PlaNYC 2013; S. M. Stringer, personal communication, 2019; Sustainable Solutions Lab 2018). Even in the 1950s, the media and public viewed USACE’s megaproject protocols as notoriously slow. In the wake of a third major flood in under two decades, Rhode Islanders lamented at the thought of a long, political “obstacle course” that would accompany any USACE-led flood protection effort. Today, environmental laws have added even more steps to what some water infrastructure experts have described as a “remarkably inefficient” process (Knopman et al. 2017). Lengthy planning times have caused flood concerns to fade and projects to stall (Fanta et al. 2019; Jacobs and Matthews 2012). Ultimately, no other projects received serious consideration besides the bay barriers. When the barriers were cancelled, interest in flood risk reduction had waned, and ultimately large-scale action was not taken.During the time when the Narragansett Bay Barriers were being considered, USACE was not required to propose alternative strategies. When the barriers failed to advance, coastal risk reduction efforts failed with it. There was not another active project alternative to consider. Today, USACE is required to consider multiple project alternatives, including green/nature-based risk reduction measures (e.g., wetlands, dunes, and living shorelines) (USACE 2017) and engineered structures along shorelines (e.g., buried levees), both lauded by environmental NGOs (K. Ong, personal communication, 2018; Riverkeeper 2018; USACE 2019c).Alternative flood risk reduction approaches often receive greater support because their proponents argue that they involve less environmental harm and are cheaper, faster to implement, and have cobenefits, such as recreational amenities and addressing social justice issues. For example, a Boston study unaffiliated with USACE found that shore-based strategies would be more cost effective, provide flexibility and adaptability, offer social justice cobenefits, and cause minimal impact to the environment (Kirshen et al. 2020; Sustainable Solutions Lab 2018). However, even shore-based strategies like levees have failed to gain support due to concerns over aesthetics and environmental degradation (Harris 2020; Nolan 1972).Today, concerns over lengthy storm surge barrier construction times have resulted in calls for support for alternative strategies. In a letter to USACE, the New York City comptroller advocated for shore- and nature-based approaches that could be built faster: “I also am concerned that the long timeline associated with the construction of these barriers—amounting to 25 years—will leave our City all too vulnerable to storms in the decades ahead.” [However, the purpose of nature-based strategies is primarily to reduce wave energy and limit erosion, not to provide reliable flood protection from extreme storm surges (Narayan et al. 2016; Oppenheimer et al., 2019; USACE 2015; USGAO 2019)]. The comptroller used the example of Venice’s Mo.S.E. barriers to support his argument; these barriers took nearly two decades of construction before they were operational (S. M. Stringer, personal communication, 2019). Megaproject construction times are also often longer than initial forecasts (Flyvbjerg et al. 2003b; Flyvbjerg 2006b, 2007); the Thames Storm Surge Barrier in London (England), also took almost a decade to construct, following roughly two decades of planning (Horner 1979). In Houston, designers of a smaller-scale surge barrier argued for their design over USACE’s under the belief that their project could be built faster: “[O]ur biggest concern is the length of time it will take to build. We get a major storm in here about every 15 years. The last one was 2017, so we could see another one before this project is complete” (Cusick 2020).In some cases, alternatives are not directly comparable. For example, they may not offer equivalent levels of protection for the same area (or address the same variety of flooding, e.g., frequent and minor tidal flooding versus devastating and rare storm surges) (USACE does not have authority to address frequent floods, because this infringes on zoning laws, which are local issues), provide the same level of reliability, or occupy the same spatial footprint (Boyd and Shabman 2019). A common example is comparing green/nature-based solutions with concrete and steel projects (Temmerman et al. 2013; USACE 2015) [what USACE calls natural and nature-based Features (NNBF)]. USACE has comparatively little experience with ecosystem solutions and views their effectiveness as more uncertain, in part due to a lack of previously successful projects and a poor understanding of reliability, failure rates, and protection levels. 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