With support from rural lawmakers, Utah House passes inland port bill that could expand the development’s scope across the state

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aerial photos of various Salt Lake points of interest including the proposed inland port area. Salt Lake Tribune, downtown, capitol, North Salt Lake.

With several rural lawmakers offering their support for the measure, the Utah House of Representatives passed a bill Friday 61-11 that would expand the scope of the inland port, a massive distribution hub planned for Salt Lake City’s westernmost side.

HB433, sponsored by inland port board member and House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, looks to shift the development from its focus on a single site in the state’s capital to a multisite approach that would include rural areas across the state.

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 — an effort to make it easier for communities with exports to clear international customs.

“This bill was always intended to benefit the whole state of Utah,” Gibson told lawmakers on Friday, noting that this proposal would help distribute high-paying jobs across the state.

Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, spoke in support of the proposal, noting that his district represents one of the state’s largest exporters in Sanpete County, with shipments of alfalfa hay cubes. “This would be a huge benefit to the industry,” Owens said.

Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, said she lives about a mile away from a coal load out area in rural Carbon County and would love to see an inland port satellite center come to her area.

“We have the facilities,” she said before casting her vote in support of the bill. “We are ready, we are able and we are excited for this.”

At a recent Inland Port Authority Board meeting, representatives from Tooele, Weber, Box Elder and Millard counties also expressed support for the hub-and-spoke model, promising development-ready parcels of land and willing communities behind them if the port board brought a hub to their areas.

Their comments stand in stark contrast to those of the many Salt Lake City residents who have been organizing for months behind efforts to kill the inland port development.

Their primary concerns center around how the project — which is expected to bring increased rail, truck and air traffic along with tailpipe emissions — will impact the environment, including air quality and the Great Salt Lake’s fragile ecosystem. They also worry about the impacts it will have on education for students in Salt Lake City’s west side.

Gibson, R-Mapleton, and other advocates of the framework argue the hub-and-spoke model would address some of those concerns — improving air quality, while bringing good jobs to overlooked communities and leveraging the statewide transportation network to disperse the impact of emissions and traffic problems in Salt Lake County.

His bill also now includes a renewable energy component that he says would create incentives for businesses to power their operations with solar energy and renewable sources.

But opponents, who came out in full force to oppose the bill at its committee hearing on Tuesday, have argued the hub-and-spoke model would not lessen environmental impacts and would simply spread negative effects around the state.

HB433 would allow the Inland Port Authority Board, which oversees the inland port development, to expand the project beyond its current boundaries only if it receives written consent from the governmental body of the new area or from the private landowner.

“We’re not just going to create [a spoke] without the support of that community,” Gibson said.

A hub-and-spoke inland port model would be fairly unusual, Gibson told lawmakers during the bill’s committee hearing, and he anticipates the hub would be up and running faster than the spokes could be developed.

Only one lawmaker spoke in opposition to the bill during debate Friday: Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, said she thinks there was a “good opportunity to correct some of the fatal flaws in the original bill” that the sponsor did not take advantage of.

The bill’s final vote split lawmakers along party lines, with 11 Democrats voting against the proposal.

Gibson’s 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.

Under the bill the House passed Friday, a government’s legislative body 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, who has long been opposed to the inland port.

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. That wouldn’t happen automatically, Gibson told lawmakers, but could be added if the port board decides it’s needed.

Only one other bill proposed so far during this session has related to the inland port: 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 and is currently awaiting a hearing in the full Senate.

Gibson’s bill now heads to the Senate for further consideration.