Editor’s Note: In this article about the Utah Inland Port, we offer some background information about the project and consider both sides of the debate surrounding it, so that you can better determine if an inland port would be good or bad for quality of life in west Salt Lake City and nearby communities.
By Christian Sears
Most people didn’t pay much attention to Salt Lake City’s, (and later the State of Utah’s) plans to create a global import/export hub in northwest Salt Lake City, until protests got out of control this summer. Fierce political controversy has recently engulfed the inland port project, which has been deemed one of the largest economic development projects the state has ever seen. The proposed development could potentially boost the state’s economy by hundreds of millions of dollars by creating jobs for Utahns and tax incentives for new companies. However, the port would also harm the environment and significantly impact nearby communities with added truck, rail and air traffic.
An inland port is a transportation hub, like any traditional port. To realize plans for an inland port in Salt Lake City, the Utah State Legislature created the Inland Port Authority in 2018 and gave it jurisdiction over 16,147 acres of land in northwest SLC (see the map on www.utahinlandport.org for details). The Port Authority was also equipped with a special tool to develop the land: a “tax increment.” Using taxpayers’ money, the Port Authority can give loans and use other financial mechanisms to incentivize development. It also has limited authority over zoning within the relevant boundaries.
Salt Lake City itself has already adjusted zoning for much of the designated land so that it is open for development. Furthermore, despite massive public outcry, the City Council voted unanimously in August to grant a $28 million dollar tax break for inland port development.
On the Port Authority’s website, they claim that the port boundary “was designed to exclude natural areas” such as Bailey’s Lake. They assert that the port “could be an opportunity to expand rail and air transport in place of truck transportation, reducing air pollution, traffic, and other impacts.” They state that the future increase of goods shipped in the US “will mean more demand for infrastructure and facilities in Utah,” which the port would presumably provide.
Finally, they write that the port could bring manufacturing work, and that projections “for employment in the manufacturing sector show continued growth in Utah and across the U.S. through 2060.” But this is deceptive, if you look at the graph immediately beneath this statement, the only projected growth is in “Change in Growth with Drift” and “Change in Growth.” Growth itself slopes downward.
Several opponents of the inland port spoke about possible downsides of the project.
Deeda Seed, the Senior Utah Field Campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity and an administrator of the website StopthePollutingPort.org, said she believes that the port will “harm our air quality, destroy the local habitat, increase traffic congestion, water pollution,” and that her and her colleagues’ “intent is to protect that area…to stop pollution that would be devastating to our quality of life.”
Seed explained that, “developers want tax breaks,” but “their plans are not environmentally sustainable to the extent that they’ve revealed them to us.” She asserts that, for example, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad seeks to develop land within the port, in order to create a second rail yard and compete with Union Pacific. Seed argues that such projects will grievously pollute our air shed and that much of the land within the port’s boundaries is simply “a terrible place to build.” She said, “we’ve been frustrated about how much of this has been behind closed doors…we want to have a fact-based, policy-based conversation about how to build a sustainable future for our valley.”
Dr. Brian Moench, Board President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, is also opposed to the inland port primarily due to the risks posed by pollution. The port would “likely be the most significant source of air pollution that’s been added to our airshed in decades.” His organization estimates that developing the inland port as planned would probably add “several thousand more diesel trucks on our roads every day.” He is also concerned that pollution from diesel train cars and increased air cargo are, contrary to the Port Authority’s claim, possibly an even worse threat than pollution from added trucks. “A recent study showed that the pollution generated by LAX in Los Angeles is roughly as much pollution as is generated by all the cars on their freeway, ” said Moench.
Moench made no effort to cushion his low opinion of the proposed development. Claiming that the development will be responsible, he said, is like claiming that “we’re going to smoke cigarettes in a responsible way…there’s no way you can make this responsible.” He added that “residents need to start speaking up…they need to be directly contacting their local officials, especially their state legislators.”
Jack Hedge, the newly appointed Executive Director of the Inland Port Authority said that the Port Authority “is trying to make sure that the development in that area meets the needs of the state economy and is done in such a way that will mitigate the impact on surrounding communities.” He conceded that, “all development has impacts,” but said, “the charge of the Port Authority is to try to utilize the tax increment to limit or mitigate those impacts or relocate those impacts.” When asked if the port will be an eyesore, Hedge offered: “That’s one of the things we’re trying to address. In addition to creating jobs in that area and for those communities [we want to make sure] that it doesn’t detract from the beauty and overly impact the quality of lives.”
Hedge insisted that the Port Authority would try “to push the development conditions further than the city would…if a developer would want the tax increment, we would try to push for greater energy efficiency and less of an environmental impact.” He offered the example of “a loan made to a developer…so that they could install solar power generation or low-impact development things like permeable pavement.” Regarding the misleading information on the website about manufacturing jobs growth, he responded: “I’m glad you brought that up…I don’t have back-end access to the site,” which was apparently created by Envision Utah.
Ultimately, since development is in its earliest stages, concrete details of the plans are sparse and the future of the port is filled with uncertainty. The only certainty is that informed engagement from community members will benefit the future of the Salt Lake Valley.
Whatever your opinion is regarding the port, make sure that your voice is heard by contacting your local elected officials, or speaking up at future community council or Port Authority meetings, or writing letters to the editor for your local newspaper.