The public is ‘beating the hell out of us’: Inland port board member blames community engagement for slow progress on planned development

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, jokes that his phone has been giving him a massage all day as wisecracking discussion ensues on SB172 by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, that pushes to allow barbers to legally perform brief neck massages on customers.

The Inland Port Authority Board formed this summer, yet snow covered the yet-to-be-developed ground in Salt Lake City’s westernmost area last week as policymakers, community advocates and board members toured the site of the future distribution hub.

The board’s work in overseeing the development — which has been billed as the state’s largest-ever economic development undertaking — has been slow, Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, told a legislative committee on Monday.

Though he thinks there are “good people” on the board, he questioned whether some members are fully committed to the project’s success. And he seemed to indicate that constant “bombardment” from community advocates at the board’s monthly public meetings has slowed things down, as well.

“The public that’s coming to these meetings are beating the hell out of us every time we turn around,” he said. “And it’s mostly about air quality. It’s mostly about, you know, truck traffic and being able to make everything work.”

Opponents of the port have argued its development will likely worsen air quality and damage the Great Salt Lake’s already fragile ecosystem. But without an environmental impact study, it’s hard to say what, exactly, the effects could be of the project, which is expected to bring increased rail, truck and air traffic along with tailpipe emissions.

House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, expressed frustration with Buxton’s depiction of the slow machinations of the board.

“Is there no sense of urgency?” asked Wilson, the incoming House speaker.

“No,” Buxton responded. “There’s not a sense of urgency.”

“We’ve got to talk about maybe changing then the way it’s operating,” Wilson said later, seeming to indicate support for legislation that would make changes to the structure or governance of the board, which currently operates with 11 appointed members. “Because we can’t afford to have people dragging their feet on something of this much significance for our state.”

Buxton, the former head of the state’s Division of Facilities Construction and Management and current Ogden City director of management services, said the board should meet more than once a month and needs “some encouragement” from lawmakers to act more quickly.

Derek Miller, the chairman of the Inland Port Authority Board, said he appreciates different perspectives on the speed of the project but disagrees that it’s moving forward too slowly.

“I think it’s remarkable the progress that we’ve made with just four months’ worth of meetings,” he said, noting that the board is working to retain legal support and hire an interim director, has passed a $2 million budget and created rules for conduct and public comment at its meetings.

What’s more important than getting work done quickly, he said, is making sure it’s done “methodically, thoughtfully and with the input of the public” — and he believes the current pace meets those standards.

Deeda Seed, a community activist with the Coalition for Port Reform, an inland port opposition group, said the insinuation that the project should speed up makes her “really nervous.”

“Usually things that are rushed are done badly,” she said. “This is being touted as an incredibly important project that’s going to take a long time to develop and the community response is, ‘Let’s take our time and do it correctly.’”

She and other community activists will continue to show up at meetings to ensure public accountability, she said, regardless of whether there’s a perception that their participation slows down the process. And she hopes the board won’t repeat what she sees as the mistakes of its creation and recent past.

“They lost the public trust with their rushing in the beginning, I would say,” she said, referring to the bill creating the inland port that lawmakers unveiled and passed with little debate on the eve of the final day of the legislative session. “And they have yet to fully regain it.”