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The Interstate 15 CORE project was hailed in 2009 as exactly the kind of “shovel-ready” project that federal stimulus dollars were meant to invest in to get people back to work in the wake of the recession.
But in 2010, it was revealed that the agency had changed its mind on the $1.1 billion construction contract it had awarded to a company, and had taken it back and given it instead to a company that had generously donated to Gov. Gary Herbert’s re-election campaign. UDOT quietly settled with the losing bidder for $13 million and later fired the employee who’d allegedly leaked the story to the press.
Still, Herbert cruised to victory and UDOT really put its shovels to work on the project, completing it in a record 35 months.
Herbert donned an orange UDOT hardhat and vest at a January 2013 press conference commemorating the end of the CORE construction. The record-breaking speed at which the project was completed was a cause for celebration and seemed proof that the right firms had been hired for the job and that the scandal was anything but.
The project was also a cause for celebration for some of the highest-ranking UDOT bosses who had been directly involved in it.
Tracy Conti retired in 2010 as UDOT’s engineer of operations, a role that put him over the agency’s construction projects and just below UDOT’s then-deputy chief, Carlos Braceras.
When Conti left, he joined the Pleasant Grove company Horrocks Engineers and became the project manager for an Aug. 30, 2012, contract between his new company and UDOT worth $1,030,984 to study traffic patterns for various north/south corridors.
Conti also was part of another contract, dated Jan. 11, 2012, acting as “special-projects support” on a $200,000 contract to help UDOT with its statewide fiber-optics effort.
In 2010, David Nazare left his role as director of UDOT’s Region 3—which covers six counties in central Utah, including Utah County, where the majority of the I-15 CORE project was focused—and joined the private firm HDR, which landed a significant contract for the state in late 2012 to study the Uintah Basin Energy Corridor.
The $907,168 study not only examined the possibility of rail, road and other infrastructure construction in the oil & gas-rich Uintah Basin, but also actively sought to survey all the potential energy resources and estimated profits by coordinating with existing energy companies in the area. Through this survey of economic potential of the basin, HDR would determine for UDOT how valuable the basin’s resources are, and how much fossil-fuel profits might be able to offset the costs of building a transportation network in the area.
Dal Hawks, who left UDOT in 2011 after being tasked as the I-15 CORE project director, joined the HNTB Corporation and was listed as the company’s senior project director on a 2013 contract it won to widen the lanes between State Road 76 in Tooele and 123000 South in Draper. The two-year contract is worth $3,407,454.
Neither Nazare, HDR, Hawks nor HNTB would comment for this story.
Jim Horrocks, president of Horrocks Engineers, says that former top UDOT manager Conti has been a great asset to his company, but that UDOT is very careful about contracting and requires disclosures of selection-team members about any conflicts of interest.
Though Conti may have been involved in procurement while he was a UDOT employee, Horrocks says he didn’t plan anything with Horrocks ahead of time; if Conti did do contracting, it would have been for construction materials, something that Horrocks’ company isn’t involved in.
Horrocks also says that the transportation business is fluid, and he’s probably had more employees leave to work for UDOT than vice versa.
“It’s not just a one-way street,” Horrocks says.
A Nimble Bureaucracy
Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, the chairman of the Legislature’s House Transportation Committee and the appropriations committee responsible for funding transportation in the state, says UDOT’s contracting strategy has worked well so far. “The operating model that UDOT uses is that they do like to contract as much of their operation as they can while still maintaining a large enough—but still a small, nimble—workforce,” Anderson says.
Anderson says that while he’s not aware of the specific contracts referenced in this story, in general, contracts that plug temporary holes make more financial and administrative sense than hiring new career employees for work that might be only temporary.
Besides that, Anderson says, the private sector is often better equipped, possessing the latest technology and the know-how to use it. But in two of the examples City Weekly looked at, the work was not always that temporary, nor did it require technology not already in use by UDOT.
The $500,000 contract to pick up the slack in the Public Transit Team was for roughly a year, but was to help a very permanent function of UDOT, which is to help administer federal grant money.
It seems WCEC scored a major win when it hired Theobald. A March 29, 2012, a post on UDOT’s website credits Theobald’s leadership, saying that “by inspiring employees and leading with vision,” he was able to unite disparate groups “into a cohesive, collaborative team.” In the post, Theobald was named the UDOT Leader of the Year for building an efficient team that was tasked with many responsibilities, chief among them being “the uber-important Highway Performance Monitoring System which is tied to more than half of UDOT’s federal funding.”
The Highway Performance Monitoring System catalogs the conditions of roads throughout the states, and its results are reported every two years to Congress. The $120,000 contract with UDOT that WCEC won after Theobald joined the company was to help UDOT with conducting its Highway Performance Monitoring System reporting.
It’s a major and ongoing task, and is one that doesn’t require technology that UDOT doesn’t already have. According to the 2013 contract, the firm would be using “Google Earth, Street View,” “UDOT’s 2012 Roadview” and updating data using Oracle—which UDOT already uses.
Public Service vs. Profit
While money in the hundreds of millions passes through UDOT, it is still a simple state agency; its office is filled with gray cubicles decorated with photos of Southern Utah, family portraits and pictures of employees’ cats and dogs. Besides the profitable retirement trajectories of a few outgoing bosses, it’s an agency that’s filled mostly with working-class Utahns, not some debauched Wall Street trading floor with people throwing money in the air and trading on lies and deception.
But for David Irvine of Alliance for a Better Utah, the dealings of even a few should worry taxpayers when it involves millions of dollars of public money.
If a public-private partnership means too cozy of a relationship between a civil servant and a private company, the public should worry, Irvine says, about whether a state employee’s interest is in making the most of taxpayer dollars or simply making the most of his or her connections for a very happy retirement.
“The concern,” he says, “always ought to be if companies are receiving unusually favorable treatment because someone has the expectation that at the end of the road there will be a golden parachute for when I bail from my state position.”