Emissions admissions, train troubles and a surveillance network — More details emerge about Utah’s inland port

Official says rail may bring more pollution than trucks.

State officials have shared additional details about the 16,000-acre inland port taking shape in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant, including a network of 250 cameras that will collect data about vehicles.

And while the port’s supporters have touted increased rail capacity as a way to improve the Wasatch Front’s airshed, an inland port director acknowledged more trains could end up bringing with them more pollution.

Meanwhile, a state-owned transloading facility — meant to be the heart of the port, moving cargo between trains and trucks — appears to have hit a snag.

The Stop The Polluting Port Coalition requested a meeting with Utah Inland Port Authority officials to answer numerous questions about the port’s often obfuscated plans. They met with Scott Wolford, the port authority’s director of technology and business policy, and Amy Brown Coffin, its director of compliance, for 45 minutes over Zoom last week. A recording of the meeting was provided to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Early on in the discussion, coalition members asked whether the port authority supported environmental protection, such as green building standards and assessments of the port’s risk to public health.

“Sustainability is really at the heart of our mission,” Brown Coffin said, highlighting plans to reduce truck idling previously shared at a port authority board meeting earlier this month. “We’re also looking at developing plans to recycle stormwater, to protect waterways and wetlands, looking at air quality monitoring.”

Port authority officials frequently have highlighted new rail infrastructure and transloading capacity as a way to reduce air impacts from trucks currently moving freight through the state.

“We can reduce a third of the truck traffic going through Salt Lake,” Wolford said. “We think that’s a benefit.”

Are trucks cleaner than trains?

Coalition members, however, pointed to an analysis of California ports, which currently have agreements with the Utah authority, that found trucks are increasingly producing less pollution than typical trains. Specifically, tighter emissions standards for trucks are resulting in less of the fine particulate matter and nitrogen oxides that create unhealthy air along the Wasatch Front during wintertime inversions.

They also said the port will likely bring more goods and cargo to the area than what currently is transported, creating more emissions.

“So there are some real problems with the language being used and the rationale being used to try and convince people that there isn’t going to be more air pollution here,” Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said at the meeting. “Frankly, we just don’t believe it.”

Wolford agreed that there won’t be a linear reduction in pollution with more freight moved by train instead of truck, calling the comments “spot on.”

“I’m more excited about the data that we’re going to collect,” Wolford said, “that will lead to better public policy decisions.”

Wolford further acknowledged that there is “conflicting information” about whether trains create more pollution than trucks.

“We’ll find out,” he said. “But we think, overall, rail is a better option than trucks are right now. We might be wrong, but I don’t think we are.

Trouble with transloading

A key component to the port’s truck-to-train plans — a proposed 150,000-square-foot transloading facility — appears to have hit a roadblock as well.

The port authority secured a $150 million bond last year to build projects like the transloading center, which Wolford said would cost in the “ballpark” of $53 million to construct.

The authority intends to run the facility in tandem with an adjacent Union Pacific terminal, but it doesn’t appear the rail company is entirely on board.

“Up until a month ago, we thought it would be a cross-stock situation with direct access to the Union Pacific rail yard intermodal hub,Wolford said, “where we could zip in there and pick up the containers.”

But Union Pacific doesn’t want to provide the port authority direct access, he said.

“It looks like they want us to [use] the normal gate that everybody else does,” Wolford said, “That puts a little crimp in my plans.”

Port officials shed additional light on the port’s planned Intelligent Crossroads Network as well, which Wolford said will collect data “interesting” to environmental groups and others.

“We’re going to have lots, probably 250, cameras,” he said, “around the northwest quadrant of that Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County area.”

Those cameras will collect information about vehicles moving around the port, such as identifying markings, company names, hazardous materials placards, truck numbers and more.

“I want an anonymous set of data that we can know what the cargo movement looks like in the state,” Wolford said, “and I commit to making that publicly available.

He added that a “partner” also would sell subscriptions to cargo handlers, using the data to help track their vehicles. The partner would also scrub data from noncommercial vehicles traveling through the port, “but initially, it will capture everything.”

Another call for a state audit

A third party hired by the port authority to tend to its public relations confirmed that the partner company is Los Angeles-based QuayChain. The company and the Utah authority announced their partnership in August 2021, and the state issued a $1.1 million vendor payment to QuayChain this year.

“We were very surprised during much of the meeting,” Deeda Seed of Stop The Polluting Port Coalition said in an interview. “We didn’t know any of the information that was shared about the transloading facility. The plan seems to be completely up in the air at this point.”

The meeting further underscored the need for a legislative audit of the port authority, Seed said, an idea that was floated by the authority’s new board during a recent meeting.

“There are so many things that the port authority has been exploring or committing to that the public doesn’t know about,” Seed said. “It all raises questions about how the money is being spent, how the decisions are being made and if there’s added value from a public subsidy.”