Not since the $1.5-billion, 10-year redevelopment in the early 2000s of two blocks in downtown Salt Lake City, creating the City Creek mixed-use retail and residential properties, has a single project occupied as much attention in the Intermountain building community as the $4.1-billion replacement of the Salt Lake City International Airport terminal.

The Airport Redevelopment Plan has been underway since summer 2014, with the majority of the terminal opening to the public in September 2020 and ultimate completion slated for late 2024. According to a 2018 economic impact analysis by Salt Lake City-based GSBS Architects, “The 13-year impact of new construction for the Airport Redevelopment Program, increasing visitor capacity as well as convenience and sustainability, is estimated at $5.5 billion total output to the economy of Utah and 3,300 annual jobs during the life of the project. The vastly more important contribution of airport services to business location, success and expansion—though difficult to measure—puts the airport at the center of successful growth for the state of Utah,” the report says.

The new 3.2-million-sq-ft terminal, a five-level parking structure and central utility plant were built on nearly 300 acres directly south and west of the old airport, which remained open during construction.

Mike Williams, project manager and president of project management company Making Projects Work, has compared the effort to “building a house on top of the one you are living in.”

Since groundbreaking, project managers have navigated the challenges of building next to an active airport, an expanding project scope, the COVID-19 pandemic and even a 5.7-magnitude earthquake that hit in March 2020. For taking on and overseeing the planning, financing and building of the project, the Salt Lake Dept. of Airports has been named ENR Mountain States’ 2021 Intermountain Owner of the Year.

An Evolving Plan

The impacts of the new airport go beyond the thousands of construction jobs and improved mobility for travelers, according to Natalie Gochnour, a two-term member of the Salt Lake Advisory Board and an economist for the Salt Lake City Chamber.  She said the project would not have been possible without the partnership of Delta Airlines, which has used SLC International as its Western hub since the late 1980s.

“This new airport really secures the long-term success for Delta here,” said Gochnour. “They are an important, major employer for us, and this project strengthens their ties to Salt Lake City. Delta will be able to expand their nonstop flights and service from here and that just provides more options and opportunities for this region.” 

Gochnour said another success for the project is that it is being completed without using taxpayer money. “There was great fiscal responsibility by leaders at the airport in the years that put us [airport officials] in the position to start this when we did,” she said. “We were able to get started with a lot of cash on hand and realize a lot of savings.”

Since groundbreaking, the airport redevelopment plan has undergone several changes. Four years into the project, and with work on the new main terminal underway, planners decided projected future travel volumes warranted adding a second concourse north of the main terminal.

A north concourse had been envisioned in earlier plans, and in the mid-2000s, during airside improvements, a 1,000-ft-long tunnel was constructed and sealed off, awaiting anticipated construction.

A joint venture team of Salt Lake City-based Okland Construction and Austin Construction was formed in 2016 and awarded the contract to build the north concourse.

The existing tunnel was connected to the west end of the A Concourse and then to the new north concourse. The north, or B, concourse opened in October of last year, only a few weeks after the official opening of the main terminal. The Austin-Okland team is currently at work on the central tunnel and the final phase of the north concourse that extends to the east.

The original scope and timeline shifted again when restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic brought air travel to a near standstill in 2020. Plans had called for some gates at the old airport to continue operating while others were built out. The old facility would be demolished in phases until the entire project would be complete in 2027. But Bill Wyatt, executive director of airports for Salt Lake City, said the building team saw an opportunity in the slowdown.

“When it became apparent that we were going to see a significant drop in passenger volume, keeping those gates open was not as critical as it once was,” he said.

The decision was made to demolish all of the old facility as soon as the new terminal opened and begin work on the new concourse extensions. Airport officials estimate the change saved nearly $300 million and cut two years off the project schedule.

Rich Thorn, president of the Utah Chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, says the development of the project has been impressive. “The team at the airport deserves a gold star for managing such a huge project and for continuing to do it during the pandemic. It has required strong communication between the owner, the city and everyone working there. It is a real testament to the strength of that building team,” he says.

Still More to Do

The project, now known as the Airport Replacement Plan, is entering the second and final phase, which includes demolition of the old parking terrace and terminal as well as completing a second tunnel connecting the A and B concourses.

Demolition of the terminal was completed in early March. In the same month, crews also installed 124 stone piles for the east extension of the main concourse (Concourse A) and drove steel piles to support the new central tunnel. It will provide a second below-grade connection from the main terminal to the B Concourse. 

Utah-based firms have been heavily involved in the project. “We have a procedure and process so everyone who wants to be involved in the work at the airport has an opportunity,” says Utah State Sen. Karen Mayne (D-West Valley City), who is serving her second term on the advisory board. “We get monthly updates on who is working on the project, and I’m always glad to see so many of our Utah companies and people on that list.”

While the overall design for the airport was done by the international firm HOK, the project has involved several Utah architectural firms, including MHTN, FFKR, Architectural Nexus and GSBS. A joint venture team of Salt Lake City-based Big-D Construction and Holder Construction from Atlanta has served as general contractor for the airport, working with Utah-based engineering firms Dunn Associates, Reaveley Engineers, Van Boerum and Frank Associates, Colvin Engineering, Horrocks Engineers and Envision Engineering, among others. At the height of construction, nearly 2,000 workers occupied the site each day. 

According to Williams, nearly $1.3 billion in airport work has gone to firms based along the Wasatch Front, representing 124 different trades. AGC’s Thorn seconds that assessment. “The airport project has been and continues to be an absolute crown jewel of construction for us,” he says. “It’s allowed literally thousands of craftspeople to show their work and how construction has positive impacts on our economy.”