New inland port director is ready to slow down and listen

Ben Hart wants to rebrand the port authority as an economic force that’s a boon to Salt Lake City and be transparent.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ben Hart, Utah Inland Port Authority's new executive director, smiles in the lobby of port headquarters on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

Ben Hart only has a few weeks under his belt as the new executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority, but he’s already shifted the controversial agency’s priorities along with its tone.

“We’ve got a bright future,” Hart beamed during an interview on his second day at the job. “I feel like the Utah Inland Port Authority has its best days ahead of it.”

Changes at the port authority came fast and furious after the board announced Hart’s hire in late August. Most of the agency’s controversial no-bid contracts were either canceled or put on pause. When a recent legislative audit revealed troubling spending issues and a lack of communication at the port authority, leadership had already adopted many of the report’s recommendations. Big projects are on hold until the port authority finishes a much-requested master plan to figure out what, exactly, it is and what it intends to do.

Hart and board members have also demonstrated a willingness to more openly engage with the public.

But bright days ahead or not, Hart admittedly bears some responsibility for the port’s past failings. He served as a board member from the time the port authority was formed in 2018 until the Legislature, in apparent frustration with lack of any substantial action, remade and pared down the board earlier this year.

Hart acknowledged the past dysfunction.

“We got to the point in board meetings where it was totally silent,” Hart said. “I’m on the board thinking, ‘This is not good for the board, this is not good for transparency’.”

Lack of consensus was largely to blame for why some of the board’s big proposals have so far flopped, Hart said, and why the public was largely in the dark about the millions of dollars being spent behind the scenes.

The port’s new boss, however, is focused on the future, not past squabbles. He offered some insight on his vision for Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant, how to create high-value jobs and which projects he wants to tackle first.

Why does Utah need an inland port?

Those living outside of the capital city who haven’t followed all the brouhaha might wonder why Utah needs an inland port at all. Plenty of other plans have been floated for the 16,000-acre northwest quadrant over the years, including a megamall or residential development.

The state needs an inland port to serve as an economic engine, Hart said, akin to Hill Air Force Base with its array of jobs — the kinds of jobs that allow residents to buy homes and raise families.

“We want something that is going to really create economic inertia throughout the whole region,” Hart said. “We’ve got an opportunity to create something that is really special.”

Since the Legislature founded the port authority in 2018, it hasn’t been entirely clear why Salt Lake City couldn’t have led the way in building a similar business and industrial hub. Or why state lawmakers felt it was appropriate to redirect much of the city’s authority over the area and place it in the hands of an unelected — and largely unaccountable — state entity.

Those are points Hart said he hears often.

“We’re talking about a multijurisdictional area,” Hart defended, “... [and] really difficult issues for one jurisdiction to solve.”

A port authority, Hart said, can bring all the stakeholders to the table to build something “visionary” in the northwest quadrant, “arm-in-arm” with Salt Lake City. As a state agency, it can offer rail and logistics support to other communities across Utah as well.

Rethinking satellite ports

Hart said he wants to move away, however, from past language about “satellite ports” in places like Tooele and Carbon counties. The term, he said, is confusing.

“It connotates that there’s a dependency on bringing everything through a main hub,” Hart said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ben Hart, Utah Inland Port Authority's new executive director is pictured on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

For some communities in rural parts of the state, Hart said, it’s more efficient to move goods to and from coastal ports directly, rather than routing them through Salt Lake County.

Calling the northwest quadrant an “inland port” itself is also imprecise, Hart said. He’d rather call it the “Lake District” and give import-export centers around the state their own distinct monikers, possibly tied to their unique landscapes. Or maybe just call them something simple like “Inland Port Cedar City.”

“That sends the message for what we’re trying to accomplish,” Hart said. “Instead of saying you’re tied directly to the Salt Lake City port, it’s a standalone facility.”

Will the inland port really lure high-paying jobs?

One of the promises of the port authority frequently touted by officials is that it won’t only bring warehousing jobs to Salt Lake City — it will be a source of well-paid careers. But how a shipping, logistics and rail nexus will provide such valuable jobs has so far been vague.

Hart said he sees biotechnology and manufacturing industries moving to the port area.

“It became clear during the pandemic,” Hart said, “that we cannot rely on foreign producers of a lot of these things that we really depend on.”

He added that in his former role at the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, “we saw a lot of these companies coming in, kicking tires in the state of Utah.”

The muddled and, at times, contentious messaging coming from the port to date, however, has made it difficult to convince those companies to invest.

Quality of life for west-side neighborhoods

One thing Hart said he doesn’t want to see the inland port become is a stockpile of shipping containers or a sea of Amazon and Walmart fulfillment centers.

“I don’t think that’s fair to west side residents either. I think we owe them better,” Hart said. “If the inland port can’t deliver on that, then we shouldn’t exist.”

(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 on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.

He conceded, however, that most of the development in the northwest quadrant so far has been massive warehouses.

“Right now, I think it’s going to be 90% to 95% distribution centers if nothing changes,” Hart said. “If we’re successful, we might get that number down to 50%.”

Hart further confirmed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is conducting an environmental justice assessment of the area, which will determine if west side communities will bear an unequal impact from the port. That study was a community-driven request, but Hart said the port authority will offer support where needed.

Port abandons plans to take church-owned property eyed by Patriot Rail

Patriot Rail, a short-line rail operator in the northwest quadrant, has spent years trying to secure federal grants to move its railyard and improve traffic and air quality on the west side. It eyed a 41-acre property south of Interstate 80, owned by a real estate arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which otherwise held little value due to lack of access.

Just as Patriot was about to close on the deal earlier this year, the port authority stepped in and declared its intent to snatch up the land instead. It also inflated the property’s selling price by millions and put Patriot’s project at risk.

Hart said the move was “unfortunate.” The port authority has since backed away from meddling with the acquisition.

(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, seen Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.

“Over the next few months, you’ll see us make some sharp pivots,” Hart said, “... so it doesn’t appear we’re coming out of nowhere without a clear intended purpose of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The transloading facility fizzles

One of the key projects touted by the port’s last executive director, Jack Hedge, was a transloading facility that would repackage goods between trains and trucks. It was meant to be the heart of the port. But despite a multi-million dollar contract signed to build and lease the facility, the port authority has yet to break ground.

The new port boss said he wants to gather input from Union Pacific, which operates an intermodal hub adjacent to the proposed transloading site, before moving forward with the project.

“It’s a lot of money,” Hart said.

Cost estimates for the facility, he noted, have ranged between $30 million to more than $50 million. The port authority has already shelled out $2.4 million to rent the site’s vacant ground. It’s a contract Hart wasn’t able to cancel or renegotiate.

“The lease was premature,” Hart said. “I felt like there was probably more of a thought process and planning that should have gone into that.”

Which projects will the port prioritize?

Hart said his main focus in the months ahead is drafting the master development plan for the port’s jurisdictional area. But the planning process can take a long time.

Still, Hart said he has a key project he wants to work on in the short term: Cleaning up the SITLA landfill site so the ground is available for development.

“We can’t keep kicking that remediation can down the road,” Hart said.

He wants to see the property become a focal point for the northwest quadrant, giving motorists on I-80 a sense that they’ve arrived in Salt Lake County and Utah’s capital city.

“We want to make sure as you’re coming in, you’re not just seeing [a] distribution [center],” Hart said, “but you see something that is more striking.”

Will the port ship and store coal?

One of the primary rumors flying about the inland port since its inception is that it’s a front for shipping Utah coal to international markets.

The legislation that formed the port authority requires Salt Lake City to allow transportation and storage of “natural resources” and memos uncovered last year found port officials worked behind the scenes with the coal industry to possibly facilitate an export channel.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ben Hart, Utah Inland Port Authority's new executive director is pictured on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

“That potential is always out there” for coal, Hart said. “Are we seeking it? No.”

He vowed if the port authority does explore coal shipments, it would be transparent.

City and county leaders share cautious optimism

The port authority has often clashed with community leaders since its formation. It was embroiled in a lawsuit with Salt Lake City over its tax increment — a case that went all the way to the Utah Supreme Court.

City residents and environmental advocates have held numerous protests over the port in the ensuing years. Some of the demonstrations turned chaotic and resulted in arrests, along with further entrenched negative feelings about the port authority. And the port authority’s lack of transparency has long been a problem. Just last year, the City Council and mayor urged the port authority to put the brakes on a $150 million bond until it provided more information about its plans.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters in front of the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Tuesday Nov. 26, 2019.

Hart has made a point of reaching out to local leaders, however, in an effort to rebuild shaky relationships.

“It’s not just about repairing our image,” he said. “It’s about making sure we have an organization that the public can believe in and that they can actually see the value we’re providing.”

In a written statement, Mayor Erin Mendenhall said she’s “encouraged” by the port authority’s shakeup, but remains focused on amplifying the positive outcomes of development in the northwest quadrant and mitigating the negatives.

“I’m optimistic that the new leadership at both the staff and board levels,” the mayor said, “are committed to working as partners with Salt Lake City and other key stakeholders.”

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said in her conversations with Hart, she emphasized the need to ensure the port area is built at the size and speed needed to benefit the surrounding community, not set it back.

“Transparency and this idea of the next step being a master plan with community input [will] really open ears,” Wilson said, “and not having a predetermined outcome. That’s my hope with this new leadership team.”

Victoria Petro-Eschler, a Salt Lake City Council member, nonvoting port authority board member and resident of the city’s west side also expressed cautious hope about Hart taking the helm.

“We have a credibility crisis with the port,” she said. “The only way to fix the credibility crisis is to lead with competency.”