State’s inland port plan for northwest Salt Lake City is news to city leaders — and they’re not happy

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski gives the State of the City address at the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, Wednesday, January 31, 2018.

A state plan for an independently-governed, land-based port for international cargo in northwest Salt Lake City got its first public airing in a meeting Thursday of stakeholders at the Capitol – a presentation that saw city representatives seethe over the state’s seeming intent to encroach on local authority and autonomy.

Though the inland port concept is not new, word of the latest initiative became public only this week, and city officials at the meeting said they were taken aback by the level of detail in the proposal outlined Thursday. That proposal is now all but certain to get a vote in the Legislature this session, with potential House and Senate sponsors both saying they were still in the conceptual stage of drafting legislation.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, who hosted the meeting, repeatedly stressed that developing the port was too big an undertaking for any single government entity – state, county or city – to handle on its own, and that it demanded a collaborative, multi-jurisdictional effort.

“I don’t think that it’s your role,” Hughes said, addressing the Salt Lake City contingent, “or that you would necessarily have the ability to take the future economy for the whole state or for the Western United States and lay that squarely on your shoulders.”

Mayor Jackie Biskupski, noting that city officials were hearing details “for the first time” at the meeting, told Hughes and the gathering that the city needed “a better understanding of what you think the jurisdictional boundaries are.”

Referring to the remaining time in the 45-day legislative session, she added: “And I think it’s unfortunate that we’re being told we have to get something done in 30 days where we all feel like we’re heading in the same direction. I don’t know that that will serve us well.”

An inland port in Utah would see inbound international cargo bypass coastal ports of entry and go through customs and other logistics processing here, transported inland by rail. All parties agree that the potential economic impact would be substantial, transforming Utah into an intermodal supply-chain hub for goods moving in both directions. They disagree, however, on process and governance.

“There’s consensus about the ultimate vision,” Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said after the meeting “The question is what’s the proper mechanism.”

Advocates of the state’s plan say that matters such as funding construction of new roads and rail lines to serve the port, coordinating among various governing bodies and other stakeholders, and eventually overseeing and managing port operations would be best handled by a new independent authority. The pending legislative proposals would create this authority, though the makeup of its governing body has not been decided.

Biskupski also questioned the need for legislation when all parties are in general agreement on the port’s advantages and could work cooperatively to develop a plan without a new governing body.

“Why have a bill? Because I want certainty,” Hughes responded.

The state’s action comes two weeks after the Salt Lake City Council finalized the city’s own plan to guide and spur development in the 3,000-acre northwest quadrant. Hughes and other advocates of the state proposal offered assurances that the city’s concept, as well as its economic and political interests more broadly, would not be superseded by the port plan.

But members of the city contingent were not convinced and remained wary of the state’s intentions.

“This is news to us,” City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall told the group. “There’s a lot for us to discuss…. We will go back and work with the (city) administration and we’ll be in touch.”

Diehl said: “Anytime the state tries to assume those traditional roles of government authority, we have concerns.”