The infrastructure bill could make Utah a leader in alternative fuels

Experts weigh in on how an influx of federal dollars may drive innovation, transform transportation and help curb climate change in Utah.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trucks carrying shipping containers move in and out of the Union Pacific intermodal terminal at a steady pace, west of Salt Lake City. Directly south is the future site of the transloading facility, which will be the heart of the inland port, as seen on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.

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President Joe Biden’s Monday signature on a massive $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal may reengineer the way people and goods move around Utah, while also tapping the brakes on the trajectory of the climate crisis.

The House of Representatives passed the Senate’s version of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on Nov. 5, legislation negotiated with a bipartisan group of lawmakers including Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). Road and bridge repair will get one of the biggest buckets of spending, with $110 billion dedicated to those projects and $3 billion alone going to Utah.

“It’s still early, very early, in terms of our understanding of exactly what’s in the bill,” warned Tallis Blalack, with Utah State University’s ASPIRE Research Center. “And more importantly, how what’s in there is going to be implemented.”

State agencies await guidance and clarification for how the infrastructure money can be applied for and spent. But it’s clear big investments lie ahead in many facets of transportation — $66 billion will go to rail projects throughout the nation, $17 billion is set aside for ports (including inland ports) and $7.5 billion is dedicated to electric vehicles, to name just a few examples.

Here, industry experts weigh in on how Utah can leverage the infrastructure deal’s funds and go beyond just patching potholes to transforming transportation in the state.

A ‘futuristic’ inland port

The Utah Inland Port Authority already has a plan in place to hire people dedicated to applying for Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act grants, according to port director Jack Hedge, in order to build a “21st Century port.”

“About 40% of the nation’s goods move through Utah annually,” Hedge said. “So I think we can make a really good case for maybe a bigger slice of the pie than we might otherwise be entitled to.”

Those funds won’t be used to build projects the port authority has already shared with the public, like the transloading facility and expanded rail access, he said.

“I see it more as being some of these things that are a little more difficult to make a business case for. For example, renewable fuels,” Hedge said. “To build that infrastructure out becomes a chicken-or-egg question. Grant monies can help build the chicken so we can get the eggs.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trucks carrying shipping containers move in and out of the Union Pacific intermodal terminal at a steady pace, west of Salt Lake City. Directly south is the future site of the transloading facility, which will be the heart of the inland port, as seen on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.

The port director said he’s particularly excited about the $65 billion the infrastructure plan dedicates to broadband. The port authority is currently partnering with Intel, Athonet, QuayChain and Wireless Industrial Group to build an “Intelligent Crossroads Network” at the port, a private 5G network that provides rapid information about the supply chain and makes moving cargo more efficient.

“There’s not a lot of good data points for where your cargo is, how it’s moving, whose truck it’s on,” Hedge said. “Our network will help provide the platform for that data to be available.”

The network could also support automation and autonomous vehicles in the future, he added. And the infrastructure bill’s timing is particularly good for Utah, since its port is largely just on the cusp of its construction.

“The portions of the port still to be developed, we can develop as this state-of-the-art, really futuristic view of how to build ports,” Hedge said, “whereas if you’re talking about a 100-year-old port, like Los Angeles, you’ve got a lot of existing infrastructure you’ve got to tear up and replace.”

Utah’s inland port remains controversial, however, and the port authority is locked in a lawsuit with Salt Lake City that sits before the Utah Supreme Court. Since its formation in 2018, opponents of the inland port have complained about the authority’s lack of transparency. Its plans for projects like the transloading facility and the Intelligent Crossroads Network continue to be vague.

Deeda Seed, with the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition, said she’s concerned infrastructure funds will be used to bring more truck traffic, climate-altering emissions and air pollution to the Wasatch Front.

“We’re in the situation where we have to see what the port authority proposes before we can respond,” Seed said. “Right now, as with everything, they give the public such incomplete information that it makes it hard for us to do the kind of robust analysis that we would like to do.”

A big rig revolution

Also at the inland port, researchers at Utah State University are ramping up to demonstrate groundbreaking technology for semi trucks, and the infrastructure deal could further drive those efforts.

An influx of diesel emissions-spewing trucks is the source of many anxieties about the growing inland port, but USU’s ASPIRE Center — which stands for Advancing Sustainability through Powered Infrastructure for Roadway Electrification — is set to demonstrate a wireless charging network and potentially make Utah an epicenter of electrified transportation.

“A lot of our focus is on how do we electrify heavy duty vehicles?” said Blalack, ASPIRE’s managing director. “That’s one of the biggest challenges we have for the nation and for the world.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trucks carrying shipping containers move in and out of the Union Pacific intermodal terminal at a steady pace, west of Salt Lake City. Directly south, at left, is the future site of the transloading facility, which will be the heart of the inland port, as seen on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.

The reason electric cars like Teslas and Nissan Leafs are a common sight on daily commutes, but electric big rigs are pretty much nonexistent, is because electric trucks are both expensive and the batteries are heavy. To cover a 500-mile range, a semi would need a unit that costs more than $100,000 and weighs 20,000 pounds.

Given that loaded rigs can’t weigh more than 80,000 pounds, those batteries limit the amount of cargo a truck can haul. But ASPIRE is working on wireless rapid chargers for trucks, similar to the cordless devices used to re-juice mobile phones.

“A semi driver will be able to pull over during a mandatory lunch break,” Blalack said, “and get enough charge in that half hour to do the full route.”

Eventually, the group wants to incorporate that technology into the road pavement itself so both truckers and commuters can charge while they drive, which would lower the price tag of electric vehicles for everyone, Blalack said. Instead of those huge 500-mile range batteries, trucks could get by on smaller and cheaper 50-mile ones.

The Utah Legislature allocated $5 million for ASPIRE’s program at the inland port, called the “Freight Logistics Electrification Demonstration Project,” and has signaled it will eventually dedicate $20 million to the pilot.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to get significant matching funds from the infrastructure bill,” Blalack said. “This is going to end up being a very good investment by the state, as we’re able to prove out these technologies and prove Utah as a leader in the nation for electrification.”

And the inland port project, set to begin construction in 2023, is just the first phase of building that electrified network.

“Ultimately, we want to see an electric corridor from Provo to Ogden,” Blalack said.

A more equitable transportation system

The biggest chunk of the infrastructure deal will help patch crumbling streets, which is right up Blyncsy CEO Mark Pittman’s alley. The Salt Lake City-based tech firm recently launched a pilot program with the Utah Department of Transportation to use its Payver A.I. software in detecting road hazards and issues in need of repair.

But Pittman said what interests him most about the infrastructure bill is the chance to build a more equitable transportation system.

“This is a slog of money to fix all the bridges that weren’t up to date, to build the roads that we need to build ... so it should move us critically forward,” he said. “My concern is what happens after.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People cross 300 West in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, between 900 South and 2100 South, an area undergoing a major redesign to make it more bike and pedestrian friendly.

The infrastructure deal is set to improve the lives of low-income and minority communities by expanding services like broadband and finally delivering running water to the Navajo Nation. Utah also has a chance to improve connectivity and transform underserved areas by adding things as basic as sidewalks and bike lanes, Pittman said.

“We have lots of areas, particularly from a transit perspective, across this country where low-income populations are effectively forced to own cars,” Pittman said, “and the bill is looking to help right those types of wrongs.”

The federal Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant program will get an additional a $7.5 billion through the infrastructure deal. RAISE has supported transportation projects like rapid bus lines to low-income neighborhoods in Alabama and the removal of a freeway that destroyed a once-thriving Black community in Detroit.

Congress has spent $8.9 billion on RAISE since its inception in 2009, so the infrastructure bill’s investment represents a significant boost.

And the president has directed that 40% of federal climate and clean energy spending should go to disadvantaged communities through the Justice40 Initiative.

Data that Pittman collects can show that low-income neighborhoods are prone to unsafe road conditions, or poor access to transit, he said, where those infrastructure dollars are badly needed.

“This can be based on a bunch of things, right?” Pittman said. “... But often we suspect a lot of it is that wealthier areas probably complain more. They donate to [politicians], their voices are elevated in ways that the other areas can’t be.”

The federal infrastructure plan also invests $5 billion to reduce crashes and conflicts with bicyclists and pedestrians through a Safe Streets For All program, which could further transform Utah’s streets into safer and more equitable spaces, Pittman said.

“We’re working really extensively and using our data detectors to find examples where there’s pedestrians and cars in conflict zones and use that to make investment in safety” with infrastructure like improved street lights, barriers and reflective paint, Pittman said.

A supercharged EV network and alternative fuels hub

The billions set to build out the nation’s electric vehicle infrastructure are bound to have an impact on Utah as well, particularly because the funds focus on rural areas.

Rocky Mountain Power recently announced a $50 million investment to add around 20 EV “extreme fast chargers” across the state. Utah can leverage that money to get more federal infrastructure funds to add even more chargers to the network, including in remote areas, according to Josh Craft with Utah Clean Energy.

That means more people will be willing to buy electric vehicles versus combustion engine cars, because “they’ll have the confidence and knowledge they can get to a charger when they need it,” Craft said.

Beyond electric vehicles, Utah is in a good position to become a leader in alternative fuels with the help of infrastructure funds. Craft noted an effort at the Intermountain Power Project in Delta exploring green hydrogen technology.

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune The Intermountain Power Plant near Delta, Utah Friday April 12, 2013.

The plant, which sends most of its power to California, will stop using coal by 2025. It intends to convert to a mix of hydrogen and natural gas, eventually generating 100% of its electricity from “clean” hydrogen that uses renewables like wind or solar to harvest hydrogen from water molecules.

“It’s new, and green hydrogen is currently expensive in terms of delivered power,” Craft said. “But there are a lot of opportunities with national funds to drive down those costs.”

Lawmakers have dedicated $8 billion to create at least four sites that can demonstrate production and storage of clean hydrogen. The Intermountain Power Plant is next door to huge salt domes that happen to be ideal natural vessels for storing hydrogen, making it a good candidate for the funds.

“There will be opportunities to sell that [hydrogen] across the West, including to Utah customers,” Craft said. “It’s a [chance] for us to be on the leading edge of an energy hub.”

The hydrogen project at the Intermountain plant, called Advanced Clean Energy Storage, is largely focused on producing electricity. But hydrogen as an alternative fuel for vehicles is another big push in the infrastructure deal, and the massive oil and gas company Chevron Corp. recently signaled its interest in becoming an investor in the Delta effort, alongside Mitsubishi Power Americas and Magnum Development.

“We’re excited that Congress has taken the first step ... in not only upgrading our infrastructure, but doing it in a way that’s mindful of our energy transition and climate change,” Craft said.