SALT LAKE CITY — The parking garage at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City has been under construction for much of the past decade.
The hospital serves our nation’s military heroes, many of them elderly and disabled.
The delays have inconvenienced those veterans, their families and employees and have raised questions of safety.
Construction on the first phase began in 2011. It took more than three years to create 328 parking spots. Then in November 2016, the second phase of construction began. It will add 347 parking stalls. Construction was supposed to wrap up in April 2018, but 20 months later, construction continues.
The KSL Investigators received an email from an employee at the Salt Lake City VA Medical Center, frustrated with the many delays in finishing the parking structure:
“How long should it take to build a parking garage? More pointedly, how long should it take to add a level onto an already existing garage? Sometimes the only spaces are far away or reserved for emergency services…
Most importantly, the parking impacts patients. The Salt Lake City VA serves veterans from Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. We have special procedures for amputees and cardiac patients which draw veterans from all over the United States. They end up missing appointments. Their family members can’t be with them during their appointments because they’re trying to ‘find parking.’ Our aging veterans and their family members fall trying to walk from too far or too fast.
As a federal employee, I’m supposed to report fraud, waste, and abuse, but no one seems clear on the root cause of the problem. There are many rumors. It’s all any employee and patient alike can talk about on some days. But there is no transparency. What we know for sure is that it is the cost is real. People are being hurt, care is being delayed, and property is being damaged. This is a federal facility, but thousands of Utah veterans, employees, and students and taxpayers are negatively impacted.”
‘There’s no reason for a veteran not to be taken care of’
Jack Johnson is a veteran and volunteer at the VA hospital. The KSL Investigators found him as he was leaving the hospital and walking to his parked vehicle inside the partially finished parking garage. He was directing traffic, letting other drivers know his spot was about to be available.
“We oftentimes even drive around in the electric carts and say, ‘Ok, well we have a vacancy three stories down,’ so we do what we can to help them,” Johnston said.
Other veterans, like Don Bee and 93-year-old WWII veteran Grant Anderson, lamented the ongoing parking problems.
“There’s been a couple of times I’ve had to park clear down over in here and then walk up in,” Bee said. “By the time I got to where I was going, I had to sit. I was out of breath.”
Grant’s adult son, Gary Anderson, has driven his father to the VA the past couple of years.
“If you get here early, it’s a great place. But it fills up in a hurry,” Anderson said. “Before the parking garage structure was built, having to park all over this end of town almost to get in here, was difficult. But they do have shuttles that will take you around. So, I think they make a good effort.”
What’s the delay?
Medical Center Director Shella Stovall shared in the frustration, for employees and patients alike.
“The veteran experience is very important to us,” she said. “That experience starts when they first come on campus and try to find a parking place.”
Stovall told the KSL Investigators the construction plans changed multiple times.
“There were some design errors,” Stovall said. “We found out there were some seismic issues that we had to correct.”
According to the hospital, during the construction of the parking garage expansion, a VA project engineer discovered a seismic design error. A third-party structural engineer was contracted to officially analyze the error and the designer was then required to modify their design.
The first phase of the garage required five modifications and the current phase required seven. Modifications are defined as “official alterations to the contract which may include several change orders.” A change order is a specific item that is being altered from the original design/contract, VA officials said.
Stovall told us a contractor drilled into a beam and weakened it in fall 2017 while also severing some tension cables.
That incident was brought up in one of two lawsuits filed this year against the project’s general contractor, Layton-based Grand Enterprises. One subcontractor sued for nonpayment of services, but the case was dismissed when Grand Enterprises showed they did, in fact, get paid. The other case also alleging nonpayment is pending. Grand Enterprises countersued.
KSL reached out to Grand Enterprises but was told the company has no comment on the project or pending litigation.
Overall, Stovall said the project is currently about $500,000 over budget. The contract was originally for $9 million.
Tentatively opening soon
Despite the delays and litigation, Stovall assured us the garage should be finished by the end of December 2019, and open to veterans and employees at the beginning of 2020.
When completed, the new parking garage will provide 675 parking spaces for veterans and their families.
During construction, the VA hospital implemented a free valet parking service to help combat long walks from cars to the hospital.
“Being able to have the valet park for us not only helps us get to appointments on time, but it also eliminates the stress of having to find a parking space,” explained Tara Nebeker. She drives her stepfather – who uses a wheelchair – to and from his appointments.
The VA administration said the service has been so successful, they are keeping it even after the parking garage is completely open.