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OREM — Get it done by Thanksgiving.
That's the new challenge laid down by Governor Gary Herbert to the prime contractor on a massive highway reconstruction project in Utah County.
"It's kind of a new date of completion," Herbert said following a tour of the project. "I've issued that challenge and they've said they're going to accept it."
It's not that the governor believes Provo River Constructors has been slow on the job. Quite the contrary; his challenge is a friendly one. Officials of the Utah Department of Transportation say it is now the fastest billion-dollar highway project in U.S. history.
The governor believes the company is moving so fast they may be able to finish earlier than expected. Until the governor's visit, UDOT had widely publicized a completion date at the end of December.
"Not only are they on schedule," the governor said, "but they're way ahead of schedule."
The governor's statements in praise of the company quickly drew fire from his political opponent because of the project's controversial bidding history.
"Herbert is saying the end justified the means," said Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Cooke. "But he's missed the point," Cook said. "Where are the ethics? The end does not justify the means."
The so-called I-15 Core Project is one of Utah's biggest ever and it's 90-percent complete. On a 24-mile stretch of Interstate 15, from Lehi to Spanish Fork, crews have added two lanes in each direction.
The statistics are astounding. Over the last three years the company hauled in more than 7 million tons of fill dirt, enough to fill the BYU Marriott Center 12 times.
They covered 2.8 million square yards with concrete, the equivalent of a sidewalk spanning the continent from coast to coast.
Total cost? Just shy of 1.5 billion dollars.
"Good value for the money," Herbert said. "They're coming in under time, and under budget. They're coming in (with) $230 million in savings. That's a pretty remarkable event."
The state originally expected to pay $1.725 billion for the project. Now the final tab is pegged at $1.495 billion.
UDOT officials attribute the cost savings to careful quality-control procedures that assured the lowest possible price on every line item. They also say the project has had an exceptionally low number of contract change-orders.
The bidding controversy was triggered two years ago when it was revealed that UDOT secretly paid a losing bidder 13 million dollars. It raised questions about whether campaign contributions to the governor influenced the state's choice of Provo River Constructors.
The bidding process "doesn't pass the smell test," Cooke said in a written statement. "The governor should never take campaign contributions from anyone bidding on a project for the state or doing business from the state. The successful bidder — Provo River Contractors — gave Herbert a $82,500 contribution months before the contract was awarded. I can assure the people of Utah this will not happen during my Administration."
But Herbert pointed to the company's performance on the big project. "We see that UDOT made the right decision," the governor said. "They awarded the contract to the right people."
UDOT officials have nothing but praise for the winning company. "They came in with a lot of innovative techniques and ideas and they knew our goals were to get in on this project, finish it, and get out," said Todd Jensen, director of the I-15 Core Project.
The state originally projected a completion date of 2014. Provo River Constructors promised to wrap it up by the end of this year. Now the governor has challenged the company to make the freeway "functionally complete" even earlier, in time for Thanksgiving and the holiday season.
Company officials seem to think it's doable.
"Yes, highly probable," said Tim Odell, Deputy Director of Construction for Provo River Constructors as he stood side by side with Governor Herbert. "They're going to redouble their efforts," Herbert said. "They've done such a great job, this is going to be the cherry on top."
Much of the $230 million that's been saved has already been assigned by the state legislature to other road projects. $35 million, for example, will go to highway improvements south of Spanish Fork. $28 million is targeted for improvements to Riverdale Road in Ogden.
Even though some drivers have complained about traffic hassles during the 35 month project, UDOT officials say their data indicates there's been minimal disruption. Travel lanes have generally been kept open, the agency says, at a much higher rate than is typical for projects of a similar scale.