The absence of any new megaprojects starting across the Mountain States region last year was indicative of the more subdued, but sustainable, pace of work for most contractors—that is, before the upheaval brought on by the coronavirus pandemic in March.

The region still has its share of ongoing megaprojects to keep firms busy, but the two largest starts during 2019 came in at $250 million—a hospital tower in the Denver area and a major overhaul of Interstate 25 in northern Colorado. While both are significant projects, they would have been well down the previous year’s Top Starts list.

The trend toward smaller projects and tighter funding will almost certainly accelerate this year, with the Census Bureau reporting that private nonresidential spending in February was down 2% across the U.S. from January and declined 0.7% compared with a year ago. Nonresidential construction spending for public work was down 1.5% in February. Neither of those figures takes into account the inevitable impact of the pandemic on new and planned work.

Some future projects already have been delayed or will be delayed, says AGC of Colorado CEO Michael Gifford. For example, the planned 317-room expansion of the Gaylord Rockies Resort near the Denver airport, previously scheduled to start soon, has been postponed.

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ENR Mountain States 2019 Top Starts

“But contractors here are relieved that there’s been no widespread shutdown like in other parts of the country,” Gifford says.

“We are grateful that [Colorado Gov. Jared Polis] exempted construction from his latest executive order,” said Colorado Contractors Association executive director Tony Milo via email. Nearly all highway projects across the region are moving forward, including work on the Central 70 rehab in Denver, freeway widening on I-25 north and south of Denver and major road improvements in Utah, Idaho and North Dakota.

Several highway projects made the list, including work on I-84 near Nampa, Idaho; I-15 northbound in Salt Lake County; the addition of a peak-period shoulder lane on I-70 westbound in Clear Creek County, Colo.; major improvements to U.S. 26/89 at Hoback Junction in Teton County, Wyo.; and work on U.S. 95 in Hayden, Idaho.

The boom in highway construction illustrates the sharp growth of metro areas around Boise, Salt Lake City and along Colorado’s Front Range. State departments of transportation are scrambling to build new roads and bridges, maintain what they already have and plan for future modes of transportation and the infrastructure to support it.

Those challenges are among the reasons why the 2020 owners of the year for the region, chosen by a vote of ENR editors, are two statewide transportation agencies: the Colorado Dept. of Transportation and the Idaho Transportation Dept. Both agencies have initiated multiple large projects and are working closely with their state legislatures to meet future highway needs in the face of uncertain public funding—a task that will likely become more difficult as states struggle to recover from the economic fallout from the pandemic.

Shoshana Lew, CDOT executive director, says, “Our main contribution during any crisis—whether a snowstorm or a pandemic—is keeping the roads open.”

Institutional, Private Mix

Other key starts from last year show a healthy mix of public and private work, from universities and K-12 schools to hospital expansions and residential mixed-use projects.

Hensel Phelps has started phased horizontal infrastructure work on the National Western Center project in Denver, replacing all roads, utilities and infrastructure; realigning multiple rail lines; and performing the site grading and excavation needed to support future work at the NWC site.

Swinerton is constructing a 128,000-sq-ft RON (remain over night) hangar and maintenance facility in Denver for Southwest Airlines, with the capacity to house three airplanes.

The University of Colorado has contracted with Adolfson & Peterson Construction to build a $46.5-million, 57,000-sq-ft addition to its music building on the Boulder campus, while GE Johnson is building the $74.3-million, 150,000-sq-ft University of Wyoming Science Initiative. The five-story project is the first part of two phases that will provide state-of-the-art facilities to support innovation and research in advanced scientific imaging and integrative biology.

In Eagle, Idaho, the $44.6-million Clara Project, being built by ESI, is a 22-acre rental community comprised of 18 apartment and townhome buildings with generous guest amenities. The project includes 22 acres of new landscaping, parking, roadways and outdoor elements.