The Utah Department of Transportation has decided it can maintain the existing road surface on I-15 better than its I-15 reconstruction contractor.

From now on, UDOT crews will be in charge of filling potholes, repaving the freeway and restriping lane separations up and down the 17-mile project corridor in Salt Lake County.Wasatch Constructors, the consortium hired to widen and rebuild the interstate, will have routine maintenance responsibilities removed from its $1.325 billion contract.

That won't affect the contractor's profit, but could save up to $1 million in taxpayer dollars over the life of the project, said John Bourne, UDOT's deputy project director for I-15 reconstruction.

Bourne, I-15 traffic operations manager John Leonard and UDOT executive director Tom Warne all insisted Tuesday the change has nothing to do with Wasatch's performance as the maintenance provider during the first year of the project.

"Wasatch did a wonderful job in doing that work for us, but we have professionals within (UDOT) that do this on a daily basis, so it made sense for us to utilize the resources we already have available to us," Bourne said. "That will give us as good a response time, if not better, and save money."

Portions of I-15 along the construction corridor were in horrible disrepair earlier this spring, particularly the outside lanes. It was so bad that slower-moving motorists would clog the fast lane to avoid the bone-jarring ride on cracked pavement in the slow lane.

Most of those stretches have been repaired or repaved recently, and UDOT officials say the work wouldn't have occurred any sooner had UDOT been in charge of maintenance from the start - mostly because of the weather.

Leonard defended Wasatch's maintenance program, saying the consortium employed a half-dozen workers to find and fill potholes.

Also, Leonard said, it was not the contractor's fault that I-15 pavement has deteriorated quickly.

Traffic volume on I-15 has fallen from 225,000 vehicles a day before work began last April to 102,000 on a busy day now. But, Leonard said, traffic volume has increased about 30 percent per lane.

For example, there were 12 lanes - including collector ramps - carrying I-15 traffic at about 2100 South last year. Now only four lanes are carrying freeway traffic. That's about 25,000 vehicles a day per lane, Leonard said, compared to about 18,000 per lane on that stretch prior to construction.

Also, Leonard said, pavement is breaking down because some of today's I-15 lanes were yesterday's shoulders. They weren't build for constant traffic.

Asked if Wasatch was so focused on rebuilding I-15 and earning up to $50 million in bonuses that it did not pay enough attention to maintenance, UDOT officials said that was not an issue.

"I don't think anybody should read anything into" the decision, Warne said. "In theory it sounded really good to have (Wasatch) do the maintenance, but in practice we realized we're really good at maintaining roads and they're really good at building them, so it made a lot of sense" to make a change.

UDOT can save money, Warne and Bourne said, because it already has the equipment and trained workers to perform maintenance work. Bourne said Wasatch had to hire a subcontractor to do much of the maintenance work on I-15.

The visibility of freeway striping will apparently improve with UDOT in charge - and at a lower cost. Bourne said UDOT crews recently re-striped the freeway from 10600 South to 4500 South using an epoxy coating that will stand out and last longer than the water-based paint Wasatch was using.

"Wasatch would have done it, but epoxy is more expensive . . . and (UDOT) already has the equipment," Bourne said.

Maintenance work schedules won't change. Re-paving and re-striping will be completed during off-peak hours.

UDOT asks motorists who spot road surface-related problems on the I-15 corridor to call UDOT's Region II headquarters at 975-4900.