‘We are a solution’ — How Utah’s inland port hopes to ease supply chain woes

Revamped board ready to move forward on rail projects, but Salt Lake City Council member raises concerns about train crossings.

With a newly streamlined board, the Utah Inland Port Authority appears ready to ramp up its plans to become an important force in the U.S. supply chain.

Lawmakers restructured the board’s membership earlier this year, nixing representation from impacted cities like Magna and West Valley, and mostly replacing them with legislators and business leaders.

That new board had its first public meeting Wednesday, when they discussed building up rail capacity in the 16,000-acre port, which occupies Salt Lake City’s still-undeveloped northwest quadrant.

Jack Hedge, the authority’s executive director, told the new board members that the port is well-positioned to help alleviate the pinch felt at sea-based ports, and the ripple effects that pain is having across the nation.

“The pandemic highlighted some long-standing frailties in our national supply chain and, frankly, our economy,” Hedge said. “... We are a solution.”

HB443 whittled the board from 11 voting members to five, with three appointed by the Legislature and two by Gov. Spencer Cox. The new board members sworn in Wednesday include chair Miles Hansen, president and CEO of World Trade Center Utah; vice chair Dan Hemmert with the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity; Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper; and Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton.

A meeting agenda listed Theresa Foxley, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, as the fifth board member, although she was not present.

SLC rep sees a ‘doubled-edged’ sword

The board is also supposed to have three nonvoting members, including a member of the Salt Lake City Council and two people with experience in transportation and logistics. But the only nonvoting member that appears to have been appointed to date is Victoria Petro-Eschler, a first-term council member who represents District 1 in the capital city.

She also is the only board member who lives in an area that undoubtedly will be impacted and transformed by the inland port.

“This project is possibly the biggest double-edged sword that will ever come to my community in a generation,” Petro-Eschler said at the meeting.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Council member Victoria Petro-Eschler speaks in December 2021. She is a nonvoting member on the inland port board.

The council member expressed optimism about the economic opportunity and jobs that could come to her constituents in, say, Rose Park and Jordan Meadows. But she shared concerns about long-term consequences as well, like worsening air quality and noise pollution.

Petro-Eschler noted the travails facing Elwood, Ill. Home to the nation’s largest inland port, the city faces a barrage of truck traffic from retailer giants but few stable, well-paying jobs. Its water supply is also on the verge of getting sucked dry.

“I have faith that we are smarter, can learn from history and apply lessons, and we can do so in a strategic way that brings about economic benefit,” Petro-Eschler said. “But we cannot, for a moment, take our eye off the ball or this thing will go off the literal and metaphorical rails.”

The port authority’s first act of “good faith,” she said, should be creating overpasses at rail crossings so emergency vehicles and commuters aren’t constantly delayed by trains.

“I can’t tell you how much money I’ve spent in late fees picking my children up from preschool,” she said, “because I got stuck at one of those stinking crossings.”

The role of rail and roads

Supporting more rail infrastructure is a major priority for the port authority, which secured a $150 million bond last year to build projects like a transloading facility that will move cargo from trucks to trains and vice versa.

Hedge noted other proposals that will benefit impacted Salt Lake City neighborhoods, including an overnight semitruck parking facility.

“Today, between 200 and 400 trucks a night park on our city streets in Salt Lake City, mostly on the west side,” he said, adding that in hot or cold conditions those trucks idle at all hours to keep the driver comfortable. “That’s putting a lot of pollution in the atmosphere ... and also a lot of noise pollution.”

The new board members didn’t appear entirely pleased with how the port authority has invested its public funds to date, however, calling into question the nearly $11 million contracted to expand 700 North. Those dollars came from a state infrastructure fund that lawmakers discussed allocating to the port in 2019 to improve rail access near Interstate 80.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Republican Rep. Mike Schultz is a member of the Utah Inland Park Authority Board.

“Rail should be what we’re mainly focused on,” Schultz said, “not roads, not truck traffic.”

Board members requested copies of the port authority’s contracts, signaling they would explore “escape clauses” and what the cost would be to cancel agreements. They also suggested a legislative audit of the port authority.

“This is not a witch hunt,” Stevenson said. “This just makes sense for all of us involved, that we take a look at exactly where we are here. Are there contracts that we have that maybe we don’t want to be involved in?”

Some members of the public took the suggestion of an audit as a sign that the new board is open to improved transparency.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Republican Sen. Jerry Stevenson, shown in 2018, is a member of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board.

“The public would be very grateful for that information,” Deeda Seed, with Stop the Polluting Port Coalition, told the board. “One of the challenges that we’ve faced ... is really lack of information about what’s intended.”

How the meeting was conducted

Wednesday’s meeting marked the first time the port authority did not livestream its meeting since the coronavirus pandemic began, even though the board met in a committee hearing room at the Capitol that has the capacity to stream. The board did not allow virtual participation. At least three members of the public did not have enough time to comment. The port authority also didn’t post the meeting agenda on its own website.

Community members raised several other concerns with the new board that have been shared with other boards in the past, including how the port’s water consumption would affect the shriveling Great Salt Lake. Others urged the board to develop a thoughtful master plan instead of letting developers and private landowners determine the northwest quadrant’s future.

Seed called on board members to better engage with the public and explain the business case for the inland port.

“In Utah, we pride ourselves on industriousness and a Western spirit of self-reliance,” Seed said. “Yet, unfortunately right now, the port authority is the epitome … of welfare capitalism based on giving away taxpayer money to special interests.”

Hansen, the chair, said virtual participation is “absolutely” something the board could consider in the future. He also signaled that the board would meet much more frequently.

“My commitment is we will move with urgency,” he said, to meet the global supply chain crisis.