Heavy construction executive Peter Owen Shea Sr. died Oct. 25 in Newport Beach, Calif., at age 88, according to a company announcement. Shea was best known for having led complicated tunnel projects during his career—from hard-rock tunneling to bored tunnels.
One of the most challenging and rewarding projects Shea oversaw was the Arrowhead tunnel construction, bored through nearly nine miles of difficult faulted wet ground in the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California in the early 2000s.
Ultimately president of J.F. Shea Construction Inc. and executive vice president of parent company J.F. Shea Co. Inc., Shea and his brother Edmund H. Shea Jr., and their cousin John F. Shea in 1958 dissolved the firm founded as a plumbing company in 1881 by their grandfather and reincorporated it as J.F. Shea Co. Inc. The original firm had been part of the joint venture that built the Hoover Dam, and foundations for the Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridges.
Traylor Bros., another family-owned, heavy civil contractor, also competed with and sometimes partnered with Shea. “We first worked with Shea in the mid-80s on the North Outfall Replacement Sewer for the City of Los Angeles and have since joint ventured on dozens of projects across North America,” said Mike Traylor, co-president, Traylor Bros., Inc. “Peter left an amazing legacy at J.F. Shea Construction. They have best in class people building the toughest of infrastructure projects across the U.S.”
Peter and brother Edmund originally served as vice presidents of the firm, with John F. Shea as CEO. Peter Sr.’s son Peter Owen Shea Jr. succeeded John as CEO in 2005, when John became chairman. Edmund died in 2010 and John in 2022. Peter Sr. became president of the firm’s heavy construction subsidiary, J.F. Shea Construction Inc., in the late 1970s.
Peter worked for the family civil construction firm during summers while earning a civil engineering degree from the University of Southern California. He started out as a chuck-tender—a driller’s assistant—on tunnel projects.
One early experience, in the early 60s, was serving as assistant project manager on four tunnels for the Pit-McCloud hydroelectric project in northern California. Later he managed the excavation of a five-mile-long water tunnel for the Navajo Irrigation Project in New Mexico. In the late 1970s, he was project manager for the 11-mile-long Sepulveda Pipeline project for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Shea Construction often partnered with Kenny Construction Co. “On Chicago’s TARP project our joint ventures built over 20 miles of 30-ft-dia tunnels,” says Patrick Kenny, former CEO of Kenny. “For the Milwaukee Sewer District, our joint ventures built some of the most difficult and technically challenging tunnel projects built at that point in time.”
Kenny adds: “Peter never kept a log of who contributed the most to our ventures. We always laughed that all that information was on the back of a napkin somewhere. There was no back and forth. We were always in the jobs together, good or not so good. We picked our partners, we respected our partners’ decisions and we worked together to provide the best outcome for the client and our partnership.”
Kiewit was another competitor and frequent partner of Shea. “Kiewit has worked with J.F. Shea for over 40 years,” says Hank Adams, executive vice president at Kiewit. “Peter Shea helped build an amazing, world-class construction company. The management team he handed the company off to manages the present company with the fundamentals that Mr. Shea established and lived by.”
The firm was initially known for its hard-rock tunneling, starting with drill and shoot methods, and moving on to tunnel-boring machines. “The Sheas, like most American tunnelers, had to expand their capabilities into all facets of tunnel excavation and concrete linings, including soft ground shield and pressurized face mining, and SEM/NATM excavation techniques,” says Jim M. Marquardt, senior vice president at J.F. Construction Inc. “The Sheas were leaders in the development of concrete linings, including cast-in-place concrete and some of the first applications of one-pass concrete linings, including the Buckskin Tunnel Project in Arizona in the mid-to-late 70’s.”
J.F. Shea Co. diversified into homebuilding and real estate development in the 1960s. Its units operate in 11 states, and own and operate nearly 10,000 apartment units and 6 million sq ft of office, industrial and retail space. In 2022, Shea Homes was ranked as the 32nd largest U.S. homebuilder by Builder magazine.
Shea received the Beavers’ management award in 2004 and the Moles’ outstanding achievement award in 2011.