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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Gov. Gary R. Herbert signs his name and puts his handprint in wet concrete as he tours I-15 CORE project construction at Center Street in Orem, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012. At back right is Lt. Gov. Greg Bell.

OREM — Get it done by Thanksgiving!

That's the new challenge issued by Gov. Gary Herbert to the prime contractor on the massive Interstate 15 highway reconstruction project in Utah County.

"It's kind of a new date of completion," Herbert said following a tour of the project Wednesday. "I've issued that challenge, and they've said they're going to accept it." The project was scheduled to be completed by December, and even by then it would be ahead of schedule and under budget.

The I-15 CORE Project by Provo River Constructors is now the fastest billion-dollar highway project in U.S. history, according to the Utah Department of Transportation. It is 90 percent complete and covers a 24-mile stretch of I-15, from Lehi to Spanish Fork. Crews have added two lanes in each direction.

During the past three years, the company hauled in more than 7 million tons of fill dirt, enough to fill the BYU Marriott Center 12 times. Workers covered 2.8 million square yards with concrete, the equivalent of a sidewalk spanning the continent from coast to coast.

Herbert praised the contractor and said the speed of the project and cost savings justify the decision to award the contract to Provo River Constructors, a direct reference to the project bidding process that would end up costing the state $13 million in a settlement with the consortium of contractors that lost the bid.

Herbert had received campaign contributions from Provo River Constructors, leading to criticism of conflict in the bid process. But no wrongdoing was ever proved following an audit.

The governor's statements in praise of the company Wednesday quickly drew fire from his political opponent in the gubernatorial election.

"Herbert is saying the end justified the means," said Democratic candidate Peter Cooke. "But he's missed the point. Where are the ethics? The end does not justify the means."

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."

The project cost is just less than $1.5 billion.

"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 said the project has had a low number of contract change orders.

"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 project.

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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 said it's doable.

"Yes, highly probable," said Tim Odell, Deputy Director of Construction for Provo River Constructors as he stood side by side with 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."

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com