FHWA unaware of I-15 CORE payout

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SALT LAKE CITY -- The Federal Highway Administration says it was out of the loop about a $13 million payment to settle a complaint on the state's biggest-ever highway contract. The FHWA says it was "unaware" of the Utah Department of Transportation payment to a losing I-15 CORE bidder.

The FHWA participated as an observer in the I-15 CORE bid process.

"Because [the project] didn't involve federal funding, at no point were they brought in to discuss it," said UDOT spokesman Nile Easton.

In a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert, the agency's Utah administrator called the process "fair and objective" -- but an agency spokesperson told KSL it knew nothing of the $13 million settlement.

The agency is the latest government entity to say it didn't know about the controversial payout.

When news broke Sept. 13 that UDOT paid $13 million to settle a complaint about the I-15 CORE contract from a second-place bidder, the governor said it was the first he'd heard of it.

"Because [the project] didn't involve federal funding, at no point were they brought in to discuss it," said UDOT spokesman Nile Easton.

"These bids come through a very complicated process," Herbert said on Sept. 13. "I don't know who wins them, who loses them."

Lawmakers said they were in the dark.

"We hate surprises in the Legislature," Utah Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins said the following day.

The attorney general said he, too, was not informed.

"That's certainly something we should have been told about," said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

Now, the Federal Highway Administration says it was also out of the loop.

A representative of the agency served as a non-voting member of the project's Evaluation Oversight Team, observing briefings, recommendations, discussions and scoring of proposals.

In a letter last week released by the governor's office, the agency called the selection of Provo River Constructors "fair and objective."

"They were there for the entire selecting of that, and they agreed that PRC was the winner," Eason said of FHWA's role.

FHWA spokesman Doug Hecox says agency officials were "unaware" of the settlement, but also said the state had "no need to inform FHWA" because no federal money is involved in the construction.

Former GOP Congressman Merrill Cook, who helped Utah secure federal funding in the ‘90s for the rebuild of I-15 in Salt Lake County, says he's troubled that no one -- including the feds -- was told about the settlement.

"It's especially troubling that this was a secret payment," Cook said. "A secret payment opens up the question of corruption."

UDOT insists it OK'd the payout without political pressure, wanting to head off a lawsuit and delays that would have cost much more than a settlement.

"We keep going back to, we made the right selection. This contractor had a better proposal," Eason said.

State lawmakers plan to look into this case. Chair of the House Transportation Committee Rep. Julie Fisher, R-Fruit Heights, says the committee wants to ask questions of UDOT's leadership to find out what happened.

E-mail: jdaley@ksl.com

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