Gov. Gary Herbert should have been able to just bask in the glow of the apparently phenomenally successful rebuild of I-15 through Utah County.
But the unpleasant political odor that has long been associated with the I-15 CORE project was so pervasive that even Herbert felt he had to address it.
The governor Wednesday went beyond acknowledging that the job's prime contractors, Provo River Constructors, narrowly won the bid after some controversial point tinkering done within the Utah Department of Transportation. In an I-15-told-you-so moment, Herbert said flat out that the results proved that the bid process was not so flawed after all.
A $1.73 billion project that comes in $230 million under budget, two years ahead of schedule, on a painfully busy highway that remained mostly open throughout, is, indeed, an argument that taxpayers were well served by the choice.
Still, process matters. And the process that led to the construction of this highway was not nearly so smooth a ride.
Provo River officials just happened to have donated $82,700 to Herbert's campaign fund in the months before the award. UDOT officials recalculated their evaluation of the bids in a way that gave Provo River a one-point victory over a consortium that included Flatiron Construction. Flatiron cried foul, and eventually settled for a payment of $13 million for design work the company had done. That not only ended the protest, it also gave the state the right to incorporate some of Flatiron's design concepts into the final project.
But the settlement caught Herbert by surprise and led to a lot of political finger-pointing. An audit, which Herbert himself asked for, found no evidence of political favoritism or collusion. But it also criticized the bid award and settlement process for a lack of clarity and documentation.
Since then, the Legislature has acted to avoid any more surprises. Now such settlements must be approved by the Transportation Commission if over $100,000, the commission and the governor if more than $500,000 and the commission, the governor and legislative leaders if more than $1 million. Meanwhile, UDOT officials have pledged to make their bid review process less subject to second-guessing.
A limit on campaign contributions, the sort of gifts that taint the image of government at all levels, even when there is no real hanky-panky going on, would also have been a proper response to the scandal. But, among Utah politicians, nobody seemed interested in that.
And that's too bad. Because, the next time a governor celebrates such a large project completion, he or she should be able to do so without such a cloud hanging over the festivities.