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Early construction work underway near Salt Lake City prison site

SALT LAKE CITY — After years of planning and public controversy, the first phase of construction work for the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City's remote west side is underway.

Crews this week were busy hauling and smoothing gravel to form the beginnings of a temporary road near the 7200 West exit off I-80.

The temporary road will provide construction access to and from the new prison site, about 6 miles west of the Salt Lake City International Airport and 2 miles north of North Temple Frontage Road.

About a week into their work as of Wednesday, crews have about four years ahead of them before the 4,000-bed, $550 million prison is finished. It is slated to open in November 2020.

"To come out here and finally see dirt moving, it's very exciting," said Jim Russell, assistant director of the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management, who is overseeing the project. "It's going to happen."

Once the 2-mile access road is finished, crews can begin hauling dirt to the prison site and begin prepping to build the new state road that will not only serve the prison but act as a main artery for more development in the city's northwest quadrant.

Thinking back on years of efforts to reform Utah's corrections system while also freeing up 700 acres of prime land in Draper where the state's current prison now stands, state officials on Wednesday were excited to see the early phases of the facility's infrastructure start to take shape.

"I'm thrilled to see us finally moving forward," said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, co-chairman of the Legislature's Prison Development Commission. "The really great thing is we'll have so much better programing in this new facility. We'll be able to take better care of those who are incarcerated, and hopefully they'll have a chance to take their lives in a new direction."

Salt Lake City leaders were also in good spirits, despite having previously fought the Utah Legislature's decision to build the prison in the city over three other sites.

That's because they're now embracing the new facility and the infrastructure it will bring with it — on the state's dime.

The cost of the two first major roads and lines for water, sewer, gas, fiber-optic cables and lighting totals $90 million — of which $47 million will come from the state based on agreements to pay for the prison's needed infrastructure.

Salt Lake City will foot the remaining $43 million, intended to fund infrastructure that will have the capacity to later serve a greater service grid that Salt Lake City Mayor Biskupski hopes will bring more industrial and manufacturing jobs to the city.

"There's so much potential in the northwest quadrant to spur economic development," said Matthew Rojas, Biskupski's spokesman. "It really is an exciting time. We're really saving a lot of money by piggybacking with the state."

But with four years of construction ahead, state and city officials face a long road that could present a variety of challenges, from environmental concerns to unexpected costs.

Last week, members of the Legislature's Prison Development Commission discussed concerns that the prison's construction price tag is growing, due to the same reason Salt Lake City's airport expansion project is costing $350 million more than expected: a hot construction market.

"We are concerned about cost escalation," Russell said, noting that Utah's construction costs have seen an up to 12 percent increase in recent years, though it's not clear how much costs can fluctuate over the next several years.

Russel said "soft cost" estimates indicate construction increases could mean another $10 million more to the $90 million infrastructure estimate and perhaps tens of millions more added on to the $550 million prison facility estimate.

"But we're hoping to be able to not experience that through bringing (contractors) on early and procuring materials as soon as we can," Russell said.

Stevenson said growing construction costs are "very possible," but its an issue the state will address as it comes — or if it comes.

"If that's what happens we'll have to work it in," Stevenson said. "You start these projects, you try to cover everything as you move forward. But unfortunately it doesn't matter (the project), it's hard to know the cost down to the last nickel."

Rojas said city officials are also prepared to be flexible, but they aren't "particularly worried about a large price increase" because the city will be paying for "ad-ons" to the main roads and lines the state will be laying.

"Anything over what we estimate, we're confident we can handle," Rojas said, noting that the project money will come out of the city's enterprise fund and not its general fund.

Russell said the construction area, which abuts wetlands, presents unique challenges to construction workers, but he's confident the grid of the prison facility and its infrastructure has been strategically placed to avoid environmental impact.

Russell also noted plans are in place to mitigate environmental impacts on birds that are known to nest in the area — including burrowing owls, which are endangered and federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

He said crews are cutting down trees in wintertime so birds don't build a nest near the construction in the spring. Workers are also on the lookout for and filling in any holes in the ground that could act as potential nests for burrowing owls.