SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly two months after their first meeting, members of the Prison Development Commission adopted recommendations that include hiring a firm "as soon as possible" to manage construction of a new 4,000-bed prison.
"I think we've kind of given the appearance we're dragging our feet," Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, the commission's co-chairman, said at the start of the meeting Thursday. "Hopefully, after today we will not be doing that."
After nearly two hours of testimony from contractors invited to comment on how the state should proceed with building a $550 million facility in Salt Lake City to replace the Utah State Prison in Draper, commission members agreed to move forward.
The list of recommendations for the state's Division of Facilities Construction and Management spells out that "a state-of-the-art, quality correctional facility" should be completed within four years after the property is acquired.
While a final deal likely won't be completed for at least four months, Stevenson said after the meeting the commission could approve a specific site by the end of the year within the property identified west of the Salt Lake City International Airport.
The issue for commission members has been whether to agree to the division's preferred plan for proceeding with the project, what's known as a construction manager and general contractor process.
When that was presented to the commission in September, members balked. Since then, a pair of consultants were hired for less than $10,000 to offer advice about the different project delivery methods available.
Although Stevenson had said last week one of the out-of-state consultants would address the commission, members instead heard from Utah-based construction company officials.
So many showed up to speak that the meeting was moved to a larger room. The invitation extended through the division's email list specified it was not a request for bids on the project and that those offering comment would not be compensated.
During the meeting, Stevenson expressed appreciation for the turnout but said "what goes on here today will not have any impact on who is chosen" for what may be the largest-ever project undertaken by the state.
Troy Thompson, executive vice president of Okland Construction, had some words of warning.
"It's going to take the leadership of a strong contractor team," Thompson said, to keep the project on schedule and on budget. "One of the biggest risks on this project is the site conditions. … Can it be done? Yes, it can be done."
But, he said, it may take at least 8 million tons of fill material to ready the area dotted with wetlands for construction. That means it would take some 700 days using 40-ton trucks moving 2,000 tons an hour to haul in enough material.
Using the process recommended by the division would allow soil to begin being moved at the start of the project, Thompson said. More fill will have to be located, he said, to supplement the less than 2 million tons readily available.
Another concern raised by Thompson was the difficulty finding workers because the construction market in Utah and surrounding states has "escalated," with labor rates climbing as high as 40 percent.
The commission did not make a specific recommendation about what process the division should use for the project, instead unanimously approving what House Majority Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, termed "good principles."
Wilson, the other co-chairman of the commission, said just how the division follows the recommendations is up to the executive branch of government.
"We set policy. The executive branch implements policy and executes. And I for one don't want to cross that line," he said. "We're not going to micromanage this process."
Jim Russell, the division's construction program manager, told the commission he already intended to hire a firm to manage the project. He said he was already working on a request for bids expected to be issued within a month.
Russell cited Thompson's statements about risks associated with the project and said the division has "to get where we can start hauling soil to the site," building temporary roads and extending utilities there while doing design work.
The list of recommendations approved also included using Utah workers, suppliers and firms "as much as possible," adopting a public input process and helping Salt Lake City, "to the extent that is practicable," develop the area.