House committee approves bill to expand inland port over opposition from environmental groups

Over opposition from environmental advocates, a House committee voted 6-2 in support of a proposal that would update the bill passed in the final hours of last year’s legislative session that created an inland port in Salt Lake City’s westernmost area.

The bill, sponsored by inland port board member and House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, looks to expand the planned distribution hub and shift it from a focus on a single site in Salt Lake City to a multisite approach that would include rural areas. In the so-called hub-and-spoke model, Salt Lake City would serve as the hub, while other interested communities would make up the spokes.

Gibson, R-Mapleton, and other advocates of the framework argue it would improve air quality, bring high-paying jobs to overlooked communities and leverage the statewide transportation network to disperse the impact of emissions and traffic problems.

“I’m not going to pretend to speak and know everything about air quality because there are lots of experts in the room who know more than me,” Gibson told his colleagues in the House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee on Tuesday, noting that most of the opposition to the port has centered around air quality and environmental concerns. “But I know by going to a spoke-and-hub model, we’ll be able to reduce some of that."

HB433 would allow the Inland Port Authority Board, which oversees the inland port development, to expand the project beyond its current boundaries if it receives written consent from the governmental body of the new area or from the private landowner. That hub-and-spoke model would be fairly unique to Utah, Gibson said, noting that he anticipates the hubs would be up and running faster than the spoke could be developed.

While several organizations spoke in favor of the bill during public comment — including a representative from rural Millard County and the Utah AFL-CIO labor union — opponents argued that it would not lessen environmental impacts but would simply spread negative effects around the state.

“I heard mention of this plan alleviating potential toxic materials being transported through town, and I want you to know that we’re not just here for Salt Lake City residents but residents all over the state," said Robin Adamson, who works with the SLC Air Protectors. “And we feel like this would be extremely damaging to the health of all [Utah] residents.”

Gibson countered that he’s heard from rural communities that they want this opportunity. At a recent Inland Port Authority Board meeting, representatives from Tooele, Weber, Box Elder and Millard counties expressed support for the hub-and-spoke model and promised development-ready parcels of land and willing communities behind them if the port board brought a hub to their areas.

While most environmental groups opposed the bill, Michael Shea, a senior policy associate with the clean-air advocacy organization HEAL Utah spoke in support of the amendments to the bill.

“A lot of the discussion around the inland port itself has been not so much complete opposition to the port but whether it can be done in a right way, especially from an environmental perspective — done in a sustainable way. And looking at this bill and the changes that are being made to it, I think I can say that this is a step in the right direction," he said during public comment, later telling The Salt Lake Tribune that the organization is still pushing for some additional environmental language.

Gibson’s bill also seeks several changes to the port board’s policy on tax incentives, extending the period of time in which the board could capture 100 percent of the property tax growth for an additional 15 years beyond the 25 years previously laid out in statute.

While the original proposal had included a controversial prohibition against challenges to the “creation, existence, funding, powers, project areas or duties of the Utah Inland Port Authority” and the use of public money to bring forward any litigation, Gibson amended that portion of the measure on Tuesday.

Under the substitute proposal the House committee ultimately adopted and passed, the legislative body of a government could bring forward a legal challenge but an executive or administrative branch could not — a provision that seems directly pointed at Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski.

The mayor, who has spoken against the bill but was not present at Tuesday’s committee hearing, has long been an opponent to the inland port, which she views as a land grab that will divert tax revenues to the state. Biskupski has said previously that she anticipates the bill creating the development is unconstitutional and will face a legal challenge, though it likely wouldn’t have come from her anyway after the council voted last year to block the mayor’s ability to file a lawsuit over the development unless she first obtains its permission.

“The legislation this year further harms the city and the residents and our kids, and that is where I get deeply concerned” Biskupski said of Gibson’s proposal prior to its hearing Tuesday afternoon. “At the end of the day, last year’s bill was horrible. This bill is worse. And the city should not be negotiating away what is rightfully ours.”

In contrast, Salt Lake City Council Chairman Charlie Luke offered lawmakers his full support for the amended proposal.

“We worked very closely with Representative Gibson and his staff and were able to bring up and discuss a lot of the things we were concerned with,” he told lawmakers. “We feel that we’ve been able to work through most of those things that we were concerned with, which brings us to the point where the Salt Lake City Council is very supportive of this legislation and encourages you to pass it.”

While several opponents spoke specifically to the bill during the public comment period, many others raised concerns more broadly about the development itself — including its impact on schools in the Salt Lake City area, the possibility for coal and other fossil fuels to be moved through the state and the perceived lack of transparency in the process behind the project.

“A lot of us feel our backs are against the wall on this one,” said Michael Cundick, the director of SLC Air Protectors, arguing that the development puts profit over the health of Utah residents and the environment. “There’s a huge amount of resistance among the community across the board, and our backs are against the wall. It’s very frustrating and very concerning.”

While Gibson said he has had good conversations with organizations that want to find a way to make the inland port work by reducing impacts on their communities and welcomes those dialogues, he pushed back on opponents who he believes simply want to kill the project.

“If your argument is we don’t need the inland port, that’s not this bill,” he said. “Because we have an inland port.”

Only one other bill proposed during this session has related to the inland port so far. Sen. Luz Escamilla’s SB144, which looks to monitor the development’s impacts on air and water quality and any increases in the level of sound and light, is still awaiting a hearing in the full Senate.