"The outlook for the Mountain States construction market seems more optimistic than in the recent past," says Mike Harms, vice president with GE Johnson Construction, Colorado Springs and Denver. "Health care, education and multifamily are currently more active than other traditional niches."

"We have seen slow, incremental growth with commercial construction opportunities in 2012," says Tom Horsting, senior vice president with Adolfson & Peterson Construction, Aurora, Colo. "We are cautiously optimistic for 2013 and beyond."

While most project executives agree that institutional work is down, they are hoping it will be a short-term decline. "We are seeing a stronger recovery in the private sector, which will drive additional revenues on the public side of the equation," says Mortenson's Bob Hansen, vice president and general manager of the firm's Denver office.

Several firms have been able to dust off projects that have been on the shelf for months or years and move them forward.

"We are finding many projects that had been on hold are beginning to show signs of life again this year, with existing clients asking for revised budgets and moving ahead on the next phases of multiphase projects," says Trey Nobles, vice president and district manager for Denver's PCL Construction Services Inc.

But the nervous-turtle banking industry isn't making deals any easier to get done, forcing contractors to get more involved in project financing.

Balfour Beatty, Dallas, has carved out a leading role for itself in the two largest projects in the region, the Utah Data Center and the massive Eagle P3 rail project in Denver.

"Contractors are getting more creative about helping owners fund projects," says Joe Reed, vice president for Balfour Beatty Rail Inc. "There has been an increase in unsolicited proposals submitted by contractors offering owners alternative financing options for their major construction projects."

One of those successful pitches happened this summer, when Denver's Regional Transportation board approved an unsolicited $350-million proposal from Kiewit Infrastructure Group to complete the final 10.5-mile leg of the I-225 light rail line in Aurora, Colo. Kiewit is also transforming Denver's historic Union Station into a multimodal transit hub for regional and commuter rail, light rail and buses.

For many firms, the recovery is in full swing, but it comes with some bullets to dodge. There is still excess risk, widespread subcontractor defaults, overleveraged developers and still not enough work to go around. "[Many] projects will be nearing completion in 2012, and there is little sizable work on the horizon," says Scott Parson, president of Utah's Staker Parson Cos.