Utah Inland Port Authority has a new look, but why does Utah have an inland port in the first place?

Is it an international cargo hub? A rail infrastructure funding mechanism? A means of rural economic development? Can it really be sustainable?

The Utah Inland Port Authority has rebranded with a new look, a revised vision and more inclusive messaging. But with all its overhauls, the quasi-governmental agency’s mission seems less and less like an entity importing and exporting goods and more of an economic development engine.

“Our focus is not about building a port,” said UIPA Executive Director Ben Hart at a news conference unveiling the new look. “It’s about building a better statewide logistics system.”

Gone are the blue and white blocks that used to compose the authority’s logo. Now, it features green lettering with what appears to be a city grid overlaying the “U” in “UIPA.” It also has a new slogan — “moving Utah forward.”

Image courtesy of the Utah Inland Port Authority.

“It’ll help us better communicate the port authority’s dedication to sustainability, innovation, respect, accountability and collaboration to all Utahns,” UIPA board chair Miles Hansen said at the news conference.

Why the port is rebranding

When lawmakers and business leaders unveiled the concept of an inland port several years ago, they floated it as a rail hub that would move goods to foreign markets (some took that to mean exports of Utah coal). Shortly after the port authority was formed, past leadership touted a transloading facility sited in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant, near an existing Union Pacific intermodal hub, as the heart of port activities.

But last year, port watchdogs tapped a logistics expert to evaluate the transloading plan. In a white paper, the professor they hired debunked the notion an inland port would even work in Utah. The state’s service-based economy doesn’t produce many exports, and its market is too small for large-scale imports.

After clashes with Salt Lake City, a slew of no-bid contracts and few accomplishments to point to, lawmakers reworked UIPA’s leadership. In recent months, the port authority has also shifted its focus away from Salt Lake City, instead opting to help communities across the state build an amalgamation of warehouse districts, manufacturing centers, rail infrastructure and industrial zones.

“Rail, in particular, is a critical part of our future,” Hart said.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Inland Port Authority executive director Ben Hart gives a presentation during an authority board meeting at the State Capitol, Thursday, May 11, 2023.

Northern Utah was once a hub of train activity and the locale where the first transcontinental railroad joined in 1862, marked by the ceremonial Golden Spike.

In the last century, however, Utahns have moved away from rail in favor of cars, trucks and highways.

“Over dependence on a single transportation mode,” Hart said, “has cost the state billions in construction dollars while air quality has suffered and rural communities have been abandoned. This is not sustainable.”

Of the nine or so communities that have invited UIPA to invest in their developments, two — Iron County and Tooele County — specifically include rail in their plans.

But at least one, Spanish Fork, does not appear to have a train component.

“It’s on the table, but there’s a long way to go before we’re doing more rail in that location,” said City Council member Shane Marshall in an interview earlier this month. “And a lot more transparency to go through.”

Some local governments, like Spanish Fork, already had plans in place for an industrial and manufacturing zone. The appeal of including UIPA mostly seems to stem from its ability to fund and guide development. It has $60 million in infrastructure bank funds to loan, along with the ability to create and manage tax differential funds. That money comes from increased property taxes as land becomes more valuable due to improvements like buildings, roads and utilities.

So, why doesn’t UIPA just rebrand itself as the “Utah Tax Differential Authority” or the “Utah Infrastructure Improvement Authority” or even the “Utah Rail Authority?”

“We would still like to have a port in Utah someday,” said Rep. Mike Shultz, R-Hooper, a UIPA board member and a lawmaker who has played a key role in legislation that reformed its operations.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chair Miles Hansen opens a meeting of the Utah Inland Port Authority board at the State Capitol, Thursday, May 11, 2023.

All the mini projects popping up around the state, Hansen added, along with Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant can work in sync as a “port” of sorts.

“Those are all opportunities to invest in the infrastructure that facilitates the flow of goods in and out of this cargo shed,” Hansen said. “And that’s what every port in the world does.”

What the heck is an inland port, anyway?

In an interview last week, however, Hart acknowledged Utah doesn’t exactly need the seaport partnerships past directors promoted. About 60% to 70% of the cargo it ships out is domestic.

“So it’s never going to go to a seaport,” Hart said.

Traditional ports, however, call to mind harbors, big boats, containers, cranes and customs. A directory compiled by the American Association of Port Authorities shows them scattered along coasts, the Great Lakes and major rivers (the latest map doesn’t include UIPA). They report stats like channel depths, bridge clearances and primary cargoes. Whatever UIPA is proposing, it doesn’t appear to be that.

Hart acknowledged the definition of an “inland port” is “murky.”

“For us, we’re just saying any place where we can create that access point,” Hart said, “where we can either offload truck to rail or whatever, something that’s multimodal, that’s kind of our definition.”

(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. Directly south is the future site of the transloading facility, which will be the heart of the inland port, as seen on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.

Daniel Smith, a principal with the Tioga Group and consultant with decades’ of experience with inland port feasibility studies and freight transportation, said the term “inland port” has evolved into more of a marketing neologism in recent years.

“With Salt Lake City, if I recall,” Smith said, “what they were saying is, ‘I have this big cluster of distribution facilities, and I have a Union Pacific intermodal facility right near by. I have the ingredients for an inland port, so let’s promote it. Let’s use that nomenclature. Let’s use that catchphrase.”

Traditional inland ports have some kind of seaport link. Smith compared it to an airport with two terminals linked by a people mover or train. But for Utah to become a logistics hub that attracts shippers, UIPA needs to clearly articulate what it does and its value.

“Importers, exporters, receivers are very pragmatic,” he said. “They don’t get excited about concepts, they want to see better shipment times, less handling, lower cost, more reliability, something very concrete that you’re offering them.”

Utah is 800 miles from a coast, so far inland that it could be hard to attract the goods flowing into major seaports, since shippers also don’t like their stuff getting handled more than necessary.

UIPA’s excitement over rail also might not pencil out, since that freight typically needs to move long distances to make it worthwhile.

“There’s so much to putting a train together at one end,” Smith said, “and taking a train apart at another.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shipping containers are moved by rail in and out of the Union Pacific intermodal terminal at a steady pace, west of Salt Lake City. Directly south is the future site of the transloading facility, which will be the heart of the inland port, as seen on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.

He compared it to driving to the Salt Lake City airport, parking the car, walking to the terminal, checking a bag, boarding a plane and flying to Orem.

“You’d be crazy to do that. I can drive there and be there quicker,” Smith said. “You get a trade-off with distance.”

That’s not to say UIPA can’t work or provide value to the state, he added. The authority could play a role in ensuring certain types of businesses, like warehouses or manufacturing, stayed grouped together away from neighborhoods. It can help prevent rural communities from getting pitted against each other for, say, an Amazon hub, where they make bigger concessions to attract the business with greater costs to their residents.

“One city may say, ‘If you build here, you … can cover more of your land with building [instead of parking],” Smith said. “That doesn’t sound too bad, until you realize it pushes all the trucks waiting and staging onto public streets.”

Can an inland port really be sustainable?

Since its inception, UIPA has insisted it will stay mindful of Utahns, the environment and improve the state’s notorious pollution problems by taking trucks off the road and replacing them with trains. That may be why its new branding includes earthy green colors. “Sustainability” is one of its new brand values.

While UIPA may have an advantage over older seaports because it can introduce newer, cleaner technology, Smith said it’s more likely than not these transportation hubs will introduce more pollution instead of clearing the air.

“Pragmatically, a lot of the reduced pollution would happen outside Utah, because you’re still going to be moving the trucks around Utah,” Smith said. Adding more rail might “benefit Nevada, but not make a big difference within Utah.”

Any new center of transportation or distribution, Smith said, will bring traffic and associated emissions which weren’t there before.

And environmental impacts remain the top concern for port watchdogs, particularly as UIPA extends its reach beyond Salt Lake City. Most plans for rural port projects haven’t been fully developed or assessed, making it difficult to understand what’s coming.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brian Moench speaks at a rally before a meeting of the Utah Inland Port Authority board at the State Capitol, Thursday, May 11, 2023.

The sites at Tooele and Spanish Fork — some of the most concrete plans presented so far — sit near wetlands vital to the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake, even as these crucial but dwindling ecosystems get dried up and paved over year by year.

“We’re losing these areas at an incredible pace with this constant push for development,” said Lynn de Freitas, executive director of FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake, during a port protest held at the State Capitol last week. “Every community, it seems, wants their own warehouse district or inland port project area, as if having one is sort of an economic panacea.”

Port opponents also balked at the idea that more ports and trains would benefit Utah’s air quality.

“It’s not true now and it still won’t be true as the port gets spread out all over the state,” said Brian Moench with Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “There is not a city anywhere in this country where a port has brought them cleaner air. It’s always the exact opposite. "