by Liesa Manuel
Utah’s proposed state-sponsored inland port would comprise about 20,000 acres of mostly unused land, including wetlands, in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant. An inland port is a hub of commercial transportation options – train, truck, and air – with links to major seaports. Inland ports have the infrastructure and customs operations to handle high volumes of freight. Therefore, a variety of businesses are drawn to a concentrated area, and significantly impact that area.
The subject of the Salt Lake Valley’s air quality was not a key focus of discussion at the Utah World Trade Center’s annual Global Forum in November, but it was mentioned in a breakout session discussing the Utah Inland Port. It was not the stated topic of discussion at any other session during roughly six hours of the Utah Global Forum, although sponsors included the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development and the Salt Lake City Department of Economic Development.
The implication throughout the panel discussion of the inland port was that changing the state’s business freight model was an essential priority for Utah’s future success and that increased rail traffic was the focus of the port project.
Robert Grow, CEO of Envision Utah (a non-profit dedicated to growth planning) moderated the panel. The members included Lance Bullen, Managing Partner of Colmena group, a major property developer in the quadrant; Lara Fritts, Director of Salt Lake City’s Department of Economic Development; Inland Port Authority Board member Wade Garrett of the Utah Farm Bureau; and Darin Parker, Managing Director of Parker-Migliori, a large Utah-based meat exporter.
Bullen, whose company sponsored the forum, described Utah’s project as an “intellectual idea.” He also said, “I don’t think that we can afford not to do the inland port because of air quality,” adding later, “Trucks will come anyway...Rail beats any form of transit.”
Grow challenged the panel members to be specific about whether regional air quality would benefit from the operations of the port by asking whether they were “confident,” and “Is there a study underway?” While no panel member answered his question directly, Fritts stated that “…air quality is part of the plan,” and Bullen responded, “That process is shared,” and “We are already at non-attainment.” (“Non-attainment” refers to the fact that our region does not meet federal air quality standards.)
Panel members enthusiastically described the business and economic benefits of an inland port in detail, which prompted Grow to point out, “There are three major west-coast ports,” and ask, “Why here?”
Fritts said that Utah, and Salt Lake City in particular, already has a “global brand,” and that the purpose of the port is to support Utah’s growing participation in the “global trade economy.” In addition, she noted that Salt Lake City links two major interstate highway systems. She said Salt Lake City is part of “Team Utah’” and “has always been very committed” to the inland port project, even though “a couple of changes may still be needed.” She did not specify what those changes might be. (Fritts has been reported as objecting to the Inland Port Authority Board’s handling of tax incentives for business expansion in the port boundaries.)
Parker summed up his argument with “The question is not whether inland ports will be built, but where.” He explained the advantage of utilizing easy access to rail. “Shipping by train is eight times cheaper than by truck.”
Bullen said, “We need to make sure that shipping in and out of Utah is cheaper than LA...Today shipping from Chicago is cheaper.” He had already said “there is a 90 percent chance that something purchased this week [in Salt Lake] came by truck from California,” and elaborated that, because customs services would be offered in Salt Lake, containers could be unloaded from a West-Coast port directly onto a train headed for Salt Lake and then transported by train or truck to subsequent destinations. Then, explained Bullen, there is “utility on the backhaul” because “these containers can pay freight back to a home port.”
The efficacy of existing direct international travel routes from the Salt Lake City airport was mentioned by way of analogy. The appeal of expedited routes for business travel was compared to the demand for direct international shipping starting by rail in Salt Lake that the port would offer, but no panel member directly speculated about increased airfreight. Nor did anyone mention an issue that has concerned some environmentalists: a possible additional runway at Salt Lake International Airport – an issue likely to impact wetlands, bird migration, air quality, and anyone who may be taxed to pay for the project.
Parker and Garrett said that the port would be an advantage to existing agricultural exports to Asian markets, stating that Utah is one of the largest U.S. exporters of eggs, while Utah’s largest cash crops are either hay or fruit. These commodities can be transported efficiently by containerized rail shipping.
All examples cited suggested that the “utility on the backhaul” outlined by Bullen would be agricultural products. The relocation of Kabota tractors to Kansas after that state established an inland port was mentioned as proof that inland ports draw out-of-state businesses.
Deeda Seed of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmental groups attending Utah Inland Port Authority Board meetings regularly, listened to the panel discussion and explained her concerns about potential threats to air quality posed by the port after the meeting.
The first issue was the high likelihood that the port will be used to transport natural resources, particularly coal. Seed cited the makeup of the Port Authority Board’s Technical Subcommittee. Members of that committee include representatives from the state’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining; the Community Impact Fund Board, which allocates state funds to communities or government entities impacted by “mineral resource development on federal lands,” according to the Five County AOG website; and SITLA, the oversight board that manages oil, gas, and mineral leasing funds from state school trust lands.
Seed’s other concern was the possibility that the drayage – transportation of containers and rail cars around the rail yard – will remain mostly diesel. Grow had mentioned that the Inland Port plans project a need for a second rail line because of an increased volume of freight. Seed thinks the drayage activity and resulting air pollution would increase, especially since the rail yard is operational around the clock.
Seed says electric switching engines are the logical choice, but expensive. Union Pacific, Salt Lake’s existing rail freight carrier, as well as BNSF, the proposed second rail carrier, would therefore need incentives to make such expenditures.
While Port Authority Board chairman Derek Miller has been quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune as saying, “We’re excited about the prospect of building a clean port,” no concrete air quality standards exist. However, the current version of state legislation creating the Inland Port Authority Board still allows the board to override municipal zoning designating types of businesses, industries, or the type of freight handled by the port.
The City Council completed zoning changes early December. While the city cannot limit the materials handled by the port, the new zoning regulations (if not overridden) address storage and transfer methods for materials that significantly affect air quality such as coal, oil or uranium. The regulations also ban industries that create significant air pollution, such as oil refineries or chemical factories, and mandate environmental mitigation plans for those not directly banned.
Inland Port Authority Board Members
The 11 members of the Inland Port Authority Board are listed below according to the entities that appointed them. The original appointing entities, which were first laid out in a bill that passed in the final hours of the 2017 Utah Legislative session, were modified by special session following opposition from Salt Lake City. The board and its technical subcommittee include members with backgrounds in natural resource development.
The Governor of the State of Utah (at his discretion) appointed:
Derek Miller is the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce president and former Chief of Staff to Governor Herbert. Miller also headed the Utah World Trade Center. The Chamber of Commerce describes the Utah World Trade Center’s mission as to “help Utah companies think, act, and succeed globally.” The Utah Global Forum is one of their projects. Others include coordinating trade delegations and assisting in obtaining grants for Utah business interested in export opportunities.
The Governor (drawing from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development) appointed:
Ben Hart is the Deputy Director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. His recent work projects have included business education partnerships such as the Utah Aerospace Partnership, and previously his efforts to bring major business developments to the Layton area when he worked for Layton City.
The President of the Utah State Senate appointed:
Gregg Buxton is a Republican state senator representing parts of Davis and Weber Counties. He directs management services for the City of Ogden.
The Speaker of the Utah House of Representatives appointed:
Francis Gibson is a Republican representative from Mapleton (Utah County) and Utah’s House Majority Leader. He has a background in hospital administration. Gibson replaced then House Speaker Greg Hughes, who had appointed himself to the board, but later resigned because of his property holdings within five miles of the proposed project boundaries. (Changes to eligibility rules were made later in a special session of the Utah State Legislature that have benefited other board members.)
The Salt Lake County Mayor appointed:
Michael Jensen is a Salt Lake County Council member and former chief of the Unified Fire Authority. Jensen resigned in 2018 when he was investigated, but not charged, in mishandling of $370,000 in UFA funds.
The Chair of the Permanent Community Impact Fund Board (drawing from the board) appointed:
Garth “Tooter” Ogden is a Sevier County Commissioner with a background in farming, but he also sits on the Community Impact Fund Board, which provides grants and loans to communities and other government entities impacted by mineral and fossil fuel development, particularly on public lands.
West Valley City Manager (with City Council approval) appointed:
Nicole Cottle is West Valley City’s Economic Development Director and its Assistant City Manager. She is also an attorney.
The Chair of the Salt Lake Airport Advisory Board appointed:
Laura Fitts is Director of the Department of Economic Development of Salt Lake City. Her background includes public and private sector positions in business development, and particular expertise in negotiation of tax credits and other government incentives.
Council Member from Salt Lake City Council District 1 (required by code):
James Rogers is the Salt Lake City Council member representing District 1, which includes most of the future Inland Port site. Rogers is a local businessman, who owns property within five miles of the inland port boundaries.
Executive Director of the Utah Department of Transportation (required by code):
Carlos Braceras is the Executive Director of the Utah Department of Transportation.
Director of the Salt Lake County Office of Regional and Economic Development (required by code):
Stuart Clason is the director of the Salt Lake County Regional and Economic Development. Utah Policy.com says that during his time in Utah’s Governor’s Office of Economic Development Clason was “the state expert on oil, gas, and mining.”