Utah’s first inland port appears ready for construction, but it’s not in Salt Lake City

Communities across the state are ready and want to move forward with port projects, including Iron, Tooele and Box Elder counties.

(Image courtesy of BZI Steel) Rendering shows potential layout of a future inland port north of Cedar City.

Five years after its formation, the Utah Inland Port Authority (UIPA) might finally have a tangible project to point to that is shovel-ready. But it’s not in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant — it’s in Cedar City.

The UIPA board approved an area plan for the Iron Springs Inland Port last week, a project that includes nearly 900 acres near 1400 N. Iron Springs Road. The new transportation and logistics hub also includes two truck-to-train transloading facilities. One will be run by Commerce Crossroads, the new headquarters of BZI Steel, and is scheduled to break ground in 2024. The other will be operated by Midvale-based Savage Companies, which previously denied its plans for a Cedar City bulk-loading rail terminal had anything to do with UIPA.

“[This is] probably the most important vote, other than forming the inland port, that this board has ever taken,” board member Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said during the meeting held in Kanarraville. “And this is the beginning of a lot of really great things for the state of Utah and the economy of the state.”

Stevenson sponsored the legislation that initially created the port authority in 2018. In the years since the port has experienced numerous roadblocks.

The project faced regular protests from Salt Lake City residents, who worry the port’s base in the capitol city will bring increased traffic and pollution, along with impacts to vital wetlands habitat near the Great Salt Lake. It has frequently clashed with Salt Lake City leaders. Its past directors inked no-bid contracts worth millions and spent millions more leasing ground for a Salt Lake City-based transloading facility that might never get built.

UIPA’s leadership saw major reforms last year. But the board has since busied itself responding to troubling audits and developing safeguards, like procurement processes and records retention policies, rather than developing strategies for national and international trade.

Moving forward in Iron County and questions about coal

In Cedar City, Savage had already planned to build a railport hub by the end of the year to enhance its network of 50 terminals across the U.S. It is unclear when or why UIPA became involved.

“They had been wanting to work with the inland port for several years,” said UIPA’s executive director Ben Hart of the state’s rural areas, including Iron County. “But because the port, for whatever reason, was not in a position [to move forward], the communities, frankly, got sick of waiting and started looking at what they could do on their own.”

Savage’s involvement in the coal industry has some questioning whether the new transloading facility will be used to move coal to foreign markets, but the document only notes Savage’s facility will transfer “bulk commodities, such as dry bulk, liquid bulk and construction products.”

“In all my conversations, [coal] has not come up,” Hart said. But one of UIPA’s requirements before it issues loans is that Savage open its hub to a variety of businesses, he added.

“They’re going to hopefully work with whoever wants to work with the facility,” Hart said, conceding that could include the coal industry.

Plans for millions in tax revenue

The port authority expects to collect close to $100 million in local property taxes over 25 years. It will issue 10% of those funds to affordable housing projects. Another 5% will go to UIPA’s own administrative costs. The remainder goes to Commerce Crossroads and Savage to help build infrastructure and recruit businesses, according to the plan.

Part of UIPA’s role will be to monitor the Iron Springs Inland Port’s impact on jobs, affordable housing, air quality and the environment. The property tax revenue can create incentives for businesses, but UIPA “generally” won’t approve such incentives to companies that use more than 200,000 gallons of water per day.

Still, Hart acknowledged, UIPA is not a regulatory body and has no way to enforce whether industries adopt the best environmental and sustainability practices.

“All our initiatives come through carrots and not sticks,” Hart said.

The plan suggests electric vehicle and hydrogen power infrastructure for trucks moving between Cedar City and St. George, the primary population centers this port will serve. But it does not include any details or funding mechanisms for creating such a corridor.

UIPA intends to target industries including light industrial, manufacturing, distribution, agricultural technology, plastics and lumber processing, according to the plan. It also intends to issue a $10 million loan to Commerce Crossroads to build out rail access.

As with port proposals in Salt Lake City, however, the inland port in Cedar City has its detractors.

“It’s become some kind of mechanism for the port authority to justify its existence,” said Deeda Seed with Stop the Polluting Port Coalition, “and it’s a massive handout to these developers.”

Does southwest Utah need an inland port?

In the last year, Iron County imported 477 freight containers, while St. George imported 1,035 containers. That amounts to about four containers per day, making the prospect of two transloading facilities seem excessive.

“If it’s ‘if you build it, they will come,’ that’s a terrible way to develop a business because it’s very uncertain,” Seed said. “And you shouldn’t be throwing public money at a thing like that.”

Hart said BZI is currently shipping its steel, mostly domestically, and has a need for the transloading facility. Asked what other exports the Iron County region produces, he did not provide any specifics.

“When you bring in a facility like this, can you create more volume that creates more consistency?” Hart said. “Does that create more downstream impact for, potentially, an intermodal facility?”

One commodity floated for exports is alfalfa, which came up frequently during public comment at the UIPA board’s Tuesday meeting, given Utah and the Colorado River Basin face significant water shortages.

“Alfalfa is not one of the industries we’re targeting,” Hart said.

More port projects popping up

Cedar City is not the only community moving forward with a rural inland port project. The Tooele County Council has a vote scheduled at 7 p.m. Tuesday to approve its own port south of Interstate 80 near the shore of the Great Salt Lake.

It is not remotely close to the inland port site pushed by The Romney Group, founded by U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney’s son Josh Romney. But state statute allows for ports that are not in contiguous areas — they just need to be in the same county, Hart said. He confirmed he has had discussions with both the Romney Group and Tooele County officials. Any project UIPA approves will need to have two public comment periods first, he added.

Romney’s 12,000-acre proposed port also has the potential to impact the Great Salt Lake. It is seeking construction of a rail spur that would bisect wetlands vital to migrating birds.

“It’s like there’s a frenzy to build inland ports,” Seed said.

Box Elder County, too, approved a resolution in late January supporting the creation of a “satellite port,” although it doesn’t specify where.

Hart is moving away from the “satellite port” terminology, however, because it suggests cargo would move from satellite sites to a “hub” in Salt Lake City, which is not the case. Ports like Iron Springs will have their own cargo routes to seaports or other destinations.

“I would say, for any of the groups that are interested in having a port project area ... we’re always willing to talk to every group,” Hart said. “There are a lot of people in this state concerned with shipping routes.”