Under new leadership, Utah Inland Port puts big spending on hold

New executive director wants a master plan and more financial transparency, while his predecessor now will retire instead of taking on role as president.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trucks move in and out of the Union Pacific intermodal terminal at a steady pace, west of Salt Lake City, on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Directly south is the future site of the Utah Inland Port Authority's transloading facility.

A much-requested master plan, along with improved financial transparency, might finally be coming to the Utah Inland Port Authority as its new boss takes the helm.

The authority’s executive director, Ben Hart, began his job this month. Hart said he has already gathered feedback from numerous port stakeholders, staffers, Salt Lake City residents and other professionals, and he is using their advice to shake up some of the port’s processes.

“I heard a lot of really, really good insights,” Hart said at a board meeting Wednesday. “I heard a lot about environmental concerns and the impact of development incentives for sustainability standards.”

One of the most common requests, Hart said, was for the port authority to develop a comprehensive long-term plan for the port’s 16,000-acre jurisdictional area, which mostly lies in the Utah capital’s northwest quadrant.

“As we move toward the broader economic vision of what this area can become, it has endless potential,” Hart said. “I think a master plan strategy is important to getting us there.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ben Hart, shown in 2020, says the Utah Inland Port Authority is putting “large spend projects” on hold while it sorts out priorities.

In the meantime, Hart said, the port authority would put “large spend projects” on hold while it sorts out its priorities.

An overhaul of money matters

Board members also signaled they plan to overhaul the port authority’s murky budget and financial reporting.

“It doesn’t have a lot of the regulations and guardrails that other state entities have in place,” said board chair Miles Hansen, adding that the lack of oversight initially gave the port authority “flexibility” to get “up and running.”

“As we move ... from a startup phase into a more institutionalized phase,” Hansen said, “transparency and accountability on the finances, it’s absolutely critical.

The board appointed vice chair Dan Hemmert to a new treasurer role in which he will help create an audit committee to better scrutinize the port authority’s budget and spending. That committee will likely have its first meeting in October.

“If we’re going to be able to do what we need to do across the state of Utah,” Hart said, “we need to have the right internal controls, compliance, all of the above, so that we can stay above any type of criticism or [negative] repute.”

Hart and board members also hinted at an “environmental justice” study in the works, overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to address water, air quality and livability concerns at the port.

“Where they’re driving and pushing us is really to look at it as something that is sustainable,” Hart said, “... and [to] make sure that as we’re working with the local community, that we’re doing a really good job listening as well.

An EPA spokesperson confirmed Wednesday that the port authority has “begun to engage” with the agency on a planned assessment but provided no further details about the study.

Hedge opts to retire instead of staying on as port president

One of the board’s final actions Wednesday was to approve the retirement of departing Executive Director Jack Hedge. The move came despite previous proclamations that Hedge would keep working for the Utah Inland Port Authority as president once Hart took over.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jack Hedge, former executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority, announced plans to retire Wednesday instead of staying on as port president.

Board members and staffers first discussed a shake-up of executive leadership at a meeting in June, noting they were seeking a fresh face to take over Hedge’s role. Hedge would then, he said, transition into a new position as port president, focusing on national and international partnerships.

Board members hired Hart, who formerly worked for the governor’s office, as the new executive director at their previous meeting on Aug. 24.

Despite lofty plans and a multimillion-dollar budget since the Legislature created it in 2018, the port has yet to break ground on any substantial projects, including its much-hyped transloading facility and alternative fuels station.

Hedge took charge in 2019. In the years since, the port authority has faced constant, and sometimes raucous, protests. It has issued pricey no-bid contracts. It potentially blew up a Utah train company’s plans to improve traffic and quality of life on Salt Lake City’s west side. It continues to receive negative public feedback about the port’s potential environmental toll and increased air pollution it will bring to the Salt Lake Valley.

The Legislature restructured the port authority’s board earlier this year, and the new members announced their plans for a legislative audit.

“The idea of a Utah Inland Port was hastily conceived in a fog of unbridled ambition but without a viable business model that any private company would have required,” one of the port’s most vocal critics, the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition, wrote in a news release upon receiving word of Hedge’s departure.

Despite the controversies, board members said they were surprised by Hedge’s retirement plans.

“Everybody involved in the organization is a beneficiary of your vision, your leadership, your tenacity, your willingness to shovel whatever needed be shoveled to get things done and move this thing forward,” Hansen told Hedge.

A news release highlighted some of Hedge’s achievements during his time at the port authority, including partnerships with two ports in California and drafting the port’s strategic business plan.

Hedge said the “timing was right” for his departure, as the organization moves into a new phase, and that he would always champion the port authority.

“The staff here has just been magnificent,” Hedge said, tearing up. “They’ve been the best group of people I’ve worked with.”

Hedge’s employment will end Oct. 28, according to a resolution passed by the board. He will continue to receive six months’ severance pay.