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Lessons Learned


Collaborative Leadership: Success Stories in Transportation Mega Projects
A "Lessons Learned" Approach to Collaborative Leadership in Mega Project Management

Successful Collaborative Leadership Example:
Interstate 15 (I-15) Reconstruction Project


I-15 (van Eyck, 2003)

I-15 (van Eyck, 2003)

As one of the fastest growing areas in the nation, (during the mid to late 1980s) and with I-15 being the main North-South transportation route through Salt Lake County and Utah, the local planning agency, the Wasatch Front Regional Council, (WFRC), the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), and the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) felt the need to address the problems on I-15. I-15 was a very busy highway with severe congestion and damage on most of the bridges caused by 30 years of traffic and deicing salts. The existing I-15 had six lanes with current traffic volumes of about 140,000 vehicles per day Southbound, and about 200,000 vehicles per day Northbound. There was also no parallel or substitute route for traffic going either way on the highway.

These problems prompted a decision to do a study on the joint highway transit needs and an environmental study. In early 1990, a Draft Environmental Impact Study (DEIS) was issued, and the study reported a need for additional capacity and a light rail transit facility on I-15. Five years after the DEIS was issued, a Supplemental Environmental Impact Study (EIS) was sent out to the public for review. This Supplemental EIS, with a proposal for an improved highway design received strong public support. In 1996, the final EIS along with a Record of Decision in the I-15 project was issued.

The I-15 Reconstruction Project was born, "the largest project ever undertaken by the State of Utah, and the largest single design-build highway contract in the United States." This project, a $1.59 billion design-build project, would involve "Reconstruction of 26km of Interstate mainline and the addition of new general purpose and High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, construction and reconstruction of more than 130 bridges, the reconstruction of seven urban interchanges, reconstruction of three major junctions with other Interstate routes including I-80 and I-215, construction of an extensive region wide Advanced Traffic Management Services (ATMS) component." (Nelson, Utah's I-15 Design-Build project: Preconstruction Phase).

The reasons for the design-build method of contracting, a decision agreed upon by the State Governor, the local chapter of the Association of General Contractors, political leaders and other Executive Directors of UDOT, included:

  • Strong public support to complete the project as soon as possible so as to minimize severe traffic congestion that would result from traffic being diverted off I-15.
  • A need to complete the project early before the 2002 Winter Olympics to be hosted in Salt Lake City.
  • This method would relieve UDOT of problems associated with the design and construction of other individual projects which were happening at about the same time (Nelson, Utah's I-15 Design-Build project: Preconstruction Phase).

"A revamped "spaghetti bowl" interchange is part of the finished I-15 reconstruction project. Two years after the $1.59 billion project's completion, Utahans are enjoying state-of-the-art travel on the 17-mile corridor." (van Eyck, 2003)

"A revamped "spaghetti bowl" interchange is part of the finished I-15 reconstruction project. Two years after the $1.59 billion project's completion, Utahans are enjoying state-of-the-art travel on the 17-mile corridor." (van Eyck, 2003)

I-15 Statistics

I-15 Statistics

(I-15 Statistics, 2003)


  • Utah Department Of Transportation (UDOT)
  • Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)
  • Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) (Project Consultant)
  • Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC)
  • Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for the Salt Lake City urbanized area.
  • Utah Transit Authority (UTA)
  • Residents of Salt Lake City and Utah Counties
  • Utah State Governor's office
  • Utah State Legislators
  • Wasatch Constructors
  • Railroad
  • Utilities


The design-build approach for the I-15 project was approved by the FHWA under the Special Experimental Project (SEP-14) procedure. This procedure "provides for some deviations from the normal Federal aid requirements dealing with selection of contractors and consultants." (Baxter, Utah's I-15 Design-Build Project: Meeting the Challenge through Innovation).

Since the I-15 was the first of its kind, the management team created by the UDOT Executive Director (which included seven UDOT engineers; the Project Consultants Parsons Brinckerhoff; an oversight team, made up of UDOT upper management and a representative from the FHWA, and from WFRC; Salt Lake City's MPO) set out to educate and promote the campaign on the benefits of the design-build method. The team made several presentations to Legislative groups, contractor organizations, and governmental units not associated with the project.

The plan called to award the contract in approximately 12 months and give about four and a half years for construction of the project. The project was divided into seven design sections, each sublet to a consultant firm to identify all needed Right of Way (ROW) and access issues. The project factors used included: Organizational Qualification, Management, Work Plan/Schedule, Technical Solution (which included Maintenance of Traffic (MOT), Geotech, Pavement, Structures, and Maintainability), and Other (which included Aesthetics, Drainage/Water Quality, Roadway Geometrics, Lightning/Signals/Signing, Hazardous/Harmful Material Remediation, Concrete Barrier, and ATMS).

On March 26, 1997, the UDOT Executive Director, announced the winning contractor with the Best value offer as the Wasatch Constructors, who would design and build the I-15 project.

SWOT Analysis

  • Strong Need and Public Support: Public survey showed that Utah citizens understood the need for the project and would prefer a more aggressive, shorter scheduled project.
  • Political Support: The Governor of Utah identified transportation issues as critical and after the final EIS was done, agreed this was an area he would like to advance.
  • Favorable economy (with Salt Like and Utah Counties being one of the fastest growing urban areas) made it possible for the project to advance.
  • Strong and Creative Leadership: Leaders and State Legislatures supported the reconstruction projects and also funded other needed transportation projects.
  • The use of the design-build method of contracting made it possible to complete the project ahead of schedule, under budget, and with minimum disruption to the public.
  • Collaborative Leadership process: There was a partnership between UDOT and FHWA, and UDOT created a project management team, separate from its traditional and established processes, to encourage "an environment for creativity and innovation" for the project. (J.R. Baxter, personal communication, November, 2004)
  • Funding: Even though the project was mostly funded by the state via the Centennial Highway Endowment Fund (CHEF) initiative, it was also eligible for Federal-aid funding, making it possible for FHWA to have approval authority for many parts of the project.
  • Good Planning/Strategy: The project's initial plan for a three-phase procurement process allowed it to carefully select the best value contractor for the project.
  • Complexity: an issue with mega projects, since there has to be coordination with a lot of entities.
  • Environmental impacts.
  • The willingness of the FHWA to approve the design-build approach under the SEP-14.
  • The "Olympic Impact": Upcoming Winter Olympics were also instrumental in getting the project on a fast track.
  • The need for additional capacity and improved traffic congestion on the existing I-15 corridor.
  • The Best Value Offer would encourage competition, innovative design and a proposal that would be most cost effective.
  • Option of having one contractor could easily backfire and cause public accusations.
  • Poor cash flow, which could cause schedule delays.
  • Coordination with railroad and utilities given the high number of such facilities on the I-15 corridor.
  • Railroad related delays with about 500 or 600 construction conflicts due to roughly 1500 utility crossings.
  • Impact on the business community along the I-15 corridor due to access restrictions on selected interchanges and increased congestion.
  • Increased traffic problems and congestion due to traffic being redirected to the Salt Lake City belt route I-215.
  • Possible opposition from the many entities involved in the project.
  • Upcoming Winter Olympics Games.


The initial funding of the project came about as part of a 10-year statewide Centennial Highway Endowment Fund (CHEF), established by the Utah State Legislature in 1996. The CHEF created a 10-year commitment of $2.6 billion in revenues for highways. However, the project was eligible for Federal aid funding.

The $1.325 billion contract awarded to Wasatch Constructors Joint Venture included:

  • $565 million in structures
  • $197 million in earthwork
  • $110 million in pavements
  • $67 million in ATMS infrastructure
  • $32 million for maintenance of traffic
  • $104 million in engineering/design.

Other costs related to the project included UDOT's management costs, ROW, upgrades to parallel facilities, insurance, and other miscellaneous costs, which brought the grand total to $1.59 billion.


The unique I-15 Reconstruction Project involved several different entities; and would create an improved traffic pattern on the highway and also improve traffic during the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Given that the design-build approach was approved under SEP-14, some deviations and waivers were allowed in the project coordination and process. Also most of the issues that may affect the different entities were somewhat included in the contract package such that the cost was borne by the design-build contractor.

  • The local chapter of the Associated General Contractors (AGC) requested that Utah contractors be given a share of the contract work. However, this commitment was no longer possible when the project became eligible for Federal aid funding. UDOT therefore made it possible for the contract to allowing bidding on approximately $100 million in construction subcontracts to allow local contractors the opportunity to bid on some of the work.
  • For the dozens of railroad overpasses and underpasses to be constructed or reconstructed in this project, the UDOT coordinated with the railroads; however, made the contractors responsible for dealing with the railroads and such related issues.
  • With approximately 1500 utility crossings in the I-15 corridor, the UDOT will provide direct reimbursement to the utilities for eligible relocation costs; however, the design-build contractor is responsible for any utility related work and will pay for any relocation costs by the utility.
  • There was a fuel adjustment clause in the contract allowing for any increase or decrease in the base price of crude oil by more than twenty-five percent, since a percentage of the work would include grading, paving, and structures.
  • To facilitate the design-build approach, the UDOT provided 100% of complete design packages for some critical design project areas, which needed to be completed early. This made it possible for the contractor to start construction as soon as the (Notice to Proceed) NTP was issued.
  • The project served as a training ground for engineers and employees of the UDOT and FHWA. FHWA sent its staff on professional development programs out to the site, and there was FHWA staff on a 2-4 month rotational assignment on the project.
  • For the non-selected contractors, a stipend of $950,000 was given to each contractor to offset the cost of preparation of some portions of their proposal, given that each contractor spent about $3-5 million on their proposals. This move gave the UDOT the opportunity to "ensure a maximum degree of innovation and quality on the development of the proposals, and to allow the UDOT to own and share with the successful proposer (Wasatch Constructors) any ideas contained within the proposals." (Baxter, Utah's I-15 Design-Build Project: Meeting the Challenge through Innovation)
  • A $50 million award fee (comprised of pay outs on a six month interval throughout the duration of the project) was to be given to the design-build contractor. The award was based on timely performance, quality of work, management and community relations/maintenance of traffic. (Baxter, Utah's I-15 Design-Build Project: Meeting the Challenge through Innovation.)
  • Overall, issues related to insurance, risks, ISO 9000 Certification, quality control and assurance were made the responsibility of the design-build contractor.

Collaborative Leadership During the I-15 Project

With the I-15 mega project being the largest single project ever built in the U.S. at the time of its completion; and with the design-build method of contracting, which led to successful completion of the project ahead of schedule and under budget, there was some significant impact made as a result of the leadership skills applied on the project. The collaborative leadership process included:

  • Support from Utah leadership at the highest levels;
    • The Governor of Utah, whose agenda to address transportation, land and water issues, ultimately made this project significant.
    • The Utah State Legislature who worked to provide state funding for the project through the CHEF initiative; while also addressing other projects.
  • Creative environment encouraged by the UDOT's management team, which changed from the traditional way of contracting to the innovative design-build method to successfully finish the project.
  • Partnership between UDOT and FHWA; which created an avenue for FHWA to provide the needed support to UDOT for the duration of the project. Partnership would also ensure continuous, open communication and full understanding of the project goals, and expectations by all entities involved.
  • Involvement of the public by the UDOT through the initial public survey conducted pre-project to obtain public understanding of the need for and support of the reconstruction project.

Key Reasons for Success

These included:

  • The decision to use the design-build contracting method which:
    • "allowed for an objective and timely consideration of massive, complex proposals, using a structured team approach
    • provided opportunities to implement and understand innovative contract techniques, leading to improved project quality and delivery for the transportation industry
    • was necessary to meet schedule constraints, meet public's request and would balance the project goals of time, quality and cost." (Baxter, & Daves, Utah's I-15 Design Build Project: Evaluation and Selection process)
  • Public Support: After the extensive public opinion survey conducted by the UDOT, the citizens of Utah preferred a shorter duration for the project, even if it meant a greater inconvenience. The community understood the need for the project.
  • There was adequate planning to fund the project through the state legislature's CHEF initiative.
  • Collaborative leadership amongst the various entities involved in the project plan and execution.


The I-15 Reconstruction Project is seen as a unique project to the transportation industry; with a tremendous opportunity for the FHWA to study and incorporate in other projects of such size and complexity. The design-build approach says it all about the strength, strategy, quality, goal, innovative techniques, leadership process and structured team approach incorporated in this project. From the initial DEIS to the final construction phase of this project, the processes worked well given the limited application within the transportation industry.

As the division representative to UDOT's I-15 project oversight committee, and a member of the Management Technical Advisor Team during the evaluation and selection process, Mr. Roy Nelson in his article "Utah's I-15 Design-Build Project: Preconstruction Phase" noted that the I-15 project "presented UDOT with a significant challenge for scheduling and completion in response to citizens concerns for prolonged disruptions and the 2002 Winter Olympic Games;" however, the choice of the design-build approach over the traditional contracting "allows UDOT to meet scheduling demands and minimize disruptions to the public," and " it also allows UDOT to benefit from several private sector innovations and value added features." "The traditional contracting would have taken extraordinary coordination of multiple projects and an extended delivery period for completion." (Nelson, Utah's I-15 Design Build Project)

After completing the I-15 project, the safety record for the highway improved. In recent UDOT statistics, from May 2001 to May 2003, there has been a noticeable drop in the overall accident rate from 1.74 (from 1994 until the spring of 1997 when the project started) to 1.42, for every million miles driven. Also for every 100 million miles driven, there has been a significant drop in the fatal accident rate from 1 to 0.23. This, according to UDOT executive director John Njord, makes I-15 a very safe facility. (Safety, 2003)

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