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Orem • Gov. Gary Herbert says the swift, efficient rebuild of Interstate 15 in Utah County vindicates controversial state decisions about awarding the $1.1 billion contract — even if bid scores were tweaked, giving it to some of his big political donors.

"As we look at it today in hindsight, we see UDOT [the Utah Department of Transportation] made the right decision in awarding the contract to the right people," he said during a tour Wednesday of the project, where he was told it is $230 million under budget and two years ahead of original schedule.

"You can look at SR-92 and see the contrast" between work done by winners and losers of the I-15 bid, Herbert said.

The smaller $170 million rebuild of State Road 92 from Lehi to Alpine was just finished 10 months behind schedule amid quality complaints, and after $4.5 million in late fees charged to the contractor, Flatiron/Harper Joint Venture. Flatiron was part of a consortium that lost the bid for the I-15 work.

That consortium was quietly paid $13 million by UDOT in 2010, when it contended it was cheated out of the $1.1 billion contract. After bid scores were tweaked, Provo River Constructors won that contract by one point. Company officials had contributed $82,500 to Herbert's campaign in months before the contract was awarded.

Audits later found no wrongdoing or political pressure by UDOT and Herbert over the bid, but a state auditor's report said auditors couldn't determine whether the bid process and settlement payment were fair because of a lack of documentation. That review also criticized UDOT for not concealing identities of the bidders, providing misleading information to one bidder about how proposals would be evaluated and for including on the UDOT evaluation team a person married to an employee of one of the bidding contractors.

The governor said the proof is in the product.

"You can see the difference between a $1 billion project here, and a significantly smaller project that is just now getting completed and is way overdue," Herbert said. "So you can do the math. And the quality of SR-92 — they've had to make them go back and fix" several problems.

Meanwhile, the governor noted that the rebuild of I-15 "is going to come in under budget, with $230 million in savings that will go to other projects."

"It is the fastest billion-dollar job ever done in this country," Carlos Braceras, UDOT deputy director, said on the tour. "Even more amazing is that was done while almost all of the lanes were open almost all of the time."

UDOT Director John Njord said the work was managed "even though everyone was ready for 'carmageddon' when we started this project."

Herbert said the controversial $13 million payment to losers of the I-15 bid had some unseen benefits, because it gave UDOT rights to the losers' designs and ideas.

As he toured construction at the Provo Center Street interchange, Provo Mayor John Curtis told him it had been completely redesigned more to the preferences of the city using drawings of losing bidders. "People don't realize that benefit," Herbert said.

Meanwhile, Herbert's Democratic opponent this year, Peter Cooke, said the governor "is a little confused that the ends justifies the means." He criticized Herbert for accepting donations from people bidding on major projects — and says he would not do that.

Cooke also assailed the payment of $13 million to losing bidders.

"You only do that when the process is very flawed, and now he's trying to justify that," Cooke said. "It's nice the project is $230 million under budget, but that should have been $243 million."

Herbert decided to leave his mark, literally, on the project Wednesday. As if it is were Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, he and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell put their handprints and signatures in wet cement at the Orem Center Street interchange.

Herbert challenged crews to finish the project even faster, by Thanksgiving along main I-15 lanes to help ease holiday traffic. Tim Odell, deputy director for construction for Provo River Constructors, said that would be "very likely."

Herbert interrupted him and said, "It's highly probable." So Odell said, "Highly probable."

The governor added that fast growth in the state creates continuing need for more highways and mass transit projects. "It will be a challenge to keep ahead of the growth."

In discussions on the tour, Herbert said the state may need to look at raising the gasoline tax — which has not been increased since 1997 — to handle future envisioned projects. A recent transportation plan for the future by UDOT, the Utah Transit Authority and regional planning agencies projects a $27 billion shortfall for needed transportation projects during the next 30 years. —

I-15 Utah County rebuild

• Construction cost is $1.1 billion, and total cost (including land) is $1.73 billion.

• It is projected to come $230 million under budget.

• Length is 26 miles from Lehi to Spanish Fork.

• Expected completion in December is two years ahead of original schedule.

• Fun fact: It used enough concrete to build a 5-foot wide sidewalk from coast to coast.