Shoshana Lew

Colorado Department of Transportation executive director Shoshana Lew announces the Snowstang during a press conference on Dec. 4, 2019, at Union Station. 

Shoshana Lew is winning over critics, but she's getting a lot of opportunities.

The Colorado highway director came west from Rhode Island last year. 

Mainly, Lew wasn't saddled with Colorado baggage, the kind in the transportation industry that could fill a Greyhound bus. Gov. Jared Polis likes to point out that Colorado voters have tanked three tax hikes for transportation in the last two years. When you can't raise more capital, you have to spend less.

Lew's outlook comes from the intersection of infrastructure and finance, first at the Office of Management and Budget and then as the top transparency office in how the recession's stimulus money was spent on transportation, before a stint as the Rhode Island highway department's chief operating officer.

She's probably more than qualified to tell you how to handle your money. In fact, she does. CDOT could soon be a $2 billion annual operation with 3,000 employees.

"This stuff runs deep for me," she said.

RELATED: CDOT to harden budget process against fraud, leader tells legislators

Lew is tasked by Polis with making it all work, and as much as anything, doing it at the best price.

She makes complicated things simple. That's been absent from government for a long time. The smoke and mirrors of how things get done, however, have always fed conspiracy theories and cynicism.

A scathing audit last year looked at the books in 2017 and found, to use the technical term, a big steaming mess, enough so that auditors couldn't rule out fraud.

The highway department plans to soon roll out an online dashboard so everyday folks can see where their dollars are going and call foul if they don't like it.

"Coming up with a good, clear plan we can explain to people to spend the dollars that we have and then showing them how we spent it," Lew told me in a conference room near her office a couple of touchdown passes from Empower Field at Mile High a couple weeks ago. "Show your work on all fronts."

That's more than talk.

When Polis asked state agencies to cut back their spending, the Department of Transportation cut itself the deepest, $28 million, but Lew sharpened the knives. You have to agree with her: It's hard to make a case for more tax money, if you're not smart about spending what you have.

Thrift is key right now, since Polis is fond of pointing out that taxpayers have declined to cough up more money for transportation on three ballot measures in two years.

That's why Lew needs to and, in fact, is looking at how the state hands out contracts to vendors.

The transportation system is larded with bureaucracy and once-well-intentioned rules and laws about how contracts are handed out. Sometimes it takes some mental gymnastics to see the savings.

On a lot of jobs, the lowest bidder gets the work. "Rip and read," they call it, a term that goes back to when bids were submitted and deals were handed out in sealed envelopes that were ripped open.

Today, big jobs are sealed with negotiations and wire transfer. The more complicated and vastly more lucrative jobs fall under a category called design-build, special deals reserved for the most capable construction and engineering firms.

The way I understand it, the highway department hires a consultant who negotiates a price for the winners to design and build a project from Steno pad to ribbon-cutting. Nearly all that work in Colorado goes to two major firms, Nebraska-based Kiewit, which opened a $55 million regional campus in Lone Tree last year, and Kraemer North America, based in Wisconsin, with a branch in Castle Rock.

You know their work: Union Station, light rail, the Gap on Interstate 25, between them, as the projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars stack up like cord wood.

To believe they're delivering the lowest cost without the greatest competition, however, depends on which set of numbers are slid under your nose. 

If the little guys can't compete, is there really a competition, and without competition do you really get the best price? The answer, again, depends on who you believe.

Logic dictates, however, that the bigger firms have more engineering expertise than the government, which is a pipeline for the brain drain from public service to private enterprise. Perception bends toward people who can get the work done on time, when they pull up with a fleet.

Agreeing on a favorable price is usually the best move in business. It's not always that simple. Change orders can add hundreds of millions of dollars to jobs over time, spoiling a bargain. Every metric of a bid is measured and valued in public records, but design-build's agreement over a concept and a price makes the quality of the deal hard to suss out, I'm told.

Lew is not ready to abandon design-build deals, but she is attuned to how complicated the bureaucracy seems.

If Polis can secure an extra $500 million above CDOT's historic base budget each year, he pledges to make the most significant investment in rural roads in state history.

If that happens, the state will need every fiscally sound contractor who can crank a tractor, Lew says.

That's a mighty big promise, though, given the state's stingy history.

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