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On the road again: I-15 flows freely after 4-year job

Shortly after the June 1995 announcement that the 2002 Winter Games would be held in Utah, Gov. Mike Leavitt and his Utah Department of Transportation made a commitment.

They said they could — and would — widen and reconstruct 17 miles of I-15 through the Salt Lake Valley by the fall of 2001, just in time for the Olympics.

But Leavitt, aware of the delays often associated with construction work and cognizant of UDOT's spotty track record then for delivering projects on time, had to wonder if he'd made the right decision.

Would I-15 be his road to ruin? Would his administration be a global laughingstock if I-15 remained unfinished and peppered with orange barrels when the world arrived?

"I thought about that a lot," Leavitt admitted early Monday morning as the freeway opened to five lanes in each direction, signaling the de facto end of the four-year, $1.59 billion rebuild.

"I think what I'm most grateful for is that we'll all be in position to take it for granted by then and that it will fade into the general picture of quality that this community will take on during the Olympics."

Marv Jenkins, driving the Mormon Meteor III, was the first Utahn to reach the "spaghetti bowl" interchange of I-15/I-80/U-201 after the freeway reopened from a weekend-long closure shortly before 6 a.m.

Jenkins, traveling south, was followed by eight Utah Highway Patrol troopers on motorcycles, 10 vintage automobiles from Classic Cars, a group of UDOT snowplows and other trucks, and motorists eager to put I-15 to the test. A Salt Lake County Sheriff's Department motorcade escorted the first northbound cars onto the freeway.

Leavitt and UDOT executive director Tom Warne jointly waved a checkered flag as the traffic rumbled through.

About 15 minutes later, the highway patrol stopped its first driver for speeding.

"This signifies the end of a very long journey," said John Leonard, a UDOT traffic operations engineer who was with the project from the start. "It's just a tremendous event for all of us."

Three airborne helicopters, TV news crews, state lawmakers, construction supervisors and others gathered atop the unfinished bridge connecting eastbound U-201 with northbound I-15 to celebrate.

The event even brought U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta to Utah. Mineta was scheduled to address project workers later in the day.

The project won't be finished until July 15, and some major structures remain closed, including the 3300 South and 2100 South interchanges. But UDOT I-15 Team spokesman Joe Walker said Monday's opening of the lanes seemed like the appropriate time to celebrate.

"We really felt like, for most people, this is when they're going to notice the most new stuff," he said, adding that other movements will open within about a month. He predicted July 15 will come and go without much fanfare.

The bulk of the freeway project was completed under a $1.325 billion contract with Wasatch Constructors, a joint venture of three companies — Kiewit Construction Co., Granite Construction Co. and Washington Construction Co. — along with other subcontractors. They are contractually obligated to finish the work by Oct. 15 but will receive a $5 million bonus if they complete it by July 15. They are on schedule to do so.

"I'm very proud of what they have accomplished and what the people of our state have accomplished in being able to work through this in a fashion that has to be characterized as good humor," Leavitt said.

"The truth is, we've had good luck. We can ascribe a lot of this to good management, but we also need to count our blessings and recognize we've been fortunate with the weather and many other circumstances that could have been different."

Warne introduced the accelerated design-build construction method to Utah's public sector in the form of the I-15 project. Without employing that strategy, which allows construction work to begin before the design is completed, the project would have been at the halfway point Monday.

"This is the safest and most modern freeway in the country right now," Warne said.

But that doesn't mean accidents won't happen. The speed limit was increased from 55 mph to 65 mph Monday, but the state police advised motorists to remain cautious.

"We just want to encourage people during this time frame to please drive at a reduced speed because this is a new freeway, they're not going to be familiar with the interchanges, the new offramps, the new HOV lanes, and it's going to take a while to become accustomed with it," Lt. Neil Porter said.


E-MAIL: zman@desnews.com