Report card shows states have a lot of infrastructure work to do

With grades like these, America’s infrastructure may never get a diploma.

Bridges in Kansas: D-plus. Dams in Missouri: D-minus. Overall infrastructure across both states: Does C-minus earn anyone a star?

Civil engineers are tough graders. A few gathered in Kansas City on Wednesday to deliver a report card that pretty much stank.

Back in March, when the American Society of Civil Engineers issued an infrastructure report card for the entire country, its very best grade — a B-minus — went to solid-waste disposal. Thanks to our decent progress in recycling, the United States’ overall grade-point average in subjects ranging from aviation to water systems actually ticked up from the previous GPA.

To a pitiful 1.30, that is, on a 4.00 scale.

In 15 years of issuing report cards, the society has never awarded the nation’s infrastructure an overall grade above D-plus. So when regional engineers called the news conference Wednesday to dole out the first-ever grades specific to Kansas and Missouri, well, nobody expected spots on the Dean’s List.

“Is C-minus good enough? I hope not,” said Alex Darby, a project engineer for Professional Engineering Consultants P.A. in Topeka, commenting on the two states’ overall scores. “A C-minus means that businesses cannot reliably and effectively move goods in an ever-changing global marketplace.”

Skeptics might note that civil engineers win contracts when governments roll out projects for new roadways or upgraded sewers. Take, for example, the D-plus given Missouri’s energy infrastructure. The assessment was arrived at with an assist from local engineers with a major energy contractor –– just the kind of business that might benefit if the state truly got serious about converting coal-based power systems to alternative energies.

But the society says it hears little argument from public agencies regarding its estimates that $3.6 trillion in national repairs are needed by 2020.

That’s about $2 trillion greater than current funding levels, said Clark Barrineau of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ government affairs office in Washington.

The point of issuing the report cards is “to condense complicated data into easy-to-understand analysis,” said Thomas A. Jacobs, a stormwater engineer for the city of Lenexa.

Similar intent was cited by a social-welfare advocacy group called Wider Opportunities for Women, or WOW, when issuing its first Economic Security Scorecard earlier this week. By WOW’s grading, Missouri flunked “Medical/Pregnancy Disability Leave Expansions” but rated an A-minus in “Number of Unemployed Served via Training.”

Said WOW’S Marissa Miller: “Basically, the point is to make people aware.”

In the engineers’ report card, Kansas earned its highest grade, C-plus, for roads and school buildings. But the report noted that only five states outpace Kansas in the number of structurally deficient bridges, that number being almost 3,000.

No explanation was offered on how the Sunflower State and its bridges swung the “plus” in D-plus.

Dams were damned in both Kansas and Missouri, earning D-minus scores. Don’t be alarmed, however, by the Missouri report card’s reference to “1,588 high hazard dams” statewide.

“It has nothing to do with the condition of the dams,” said Doug Crum, dam safety program manager for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Practically all of federal flood control falls into the high hazard category. It refers to the potential consequences if something failed.

“We’re not panicking yet. But we’re concerned” about having enough money to keep dams safe, Crum said. “In this day of sequestration, it’s very competitive (to secure) adequate funding.”

Kansas City civil engineer Larry W. Frevert, who spoke at the news conference, faulted elected officials for not pushing for improvements despite consistently terrible report cards on national infrastructure.

“They’re either not hearing the story or aren’t listening” to engineers, said Frevert, a senior consultant at TREKK Design Group. “You always run the risk of running around saying the sky is falling. We’re not saying those things.”

It’s simply a fact that time will erode, he said, and stuff –– buildings, highway bridges, power grids –– can get dangerously old: “We do have an ongoing, deteriorating problem.”