In a 30-second video posted to David Garbett’s Facebook page at the end of April, the Salt Lake City mayoral candidate stands in front of a railroad track as a freight train moves behind him.
“I oppose the inland port,” he says decisively.
That declaration represents a shift to a stronger stance from just a few weeks ago, when Garbett said he would work to negotiate with the board overseeing development of a massive and highly politicized distribution hub planned for the city’s northwest side and would pursue litigation only as a last resort.
“I talked to a few more people about this,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune in a recent interview. “And as I did more research, as I thought about this more, I realized that I was missing the big issue — that I was probably a bit naive to think that a mayor just coming in and saying, ‘Hey, I’m a fresh face, let’s talk about this,’” would solve any problems with the project.
Garbett and most of the nine other candidates for mayor have met in recent weeks with an activist group opposing the development — and he’s not the only one who has staked out a tougher stance as the race starts to heat up ahead of August’s primary election.
Standing in Salt Lake City’s wetlands in a video posted recently to her campaign Facebook page, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall also appeared to take a stronger stance on the project, while continuing to promise that she would ensure the city has a “seat at the table.”
“As an environmentalist, I support open and public lands just like this land here, where the state is planning the inland port,” she said, gesturing to the wildlife around her. “I want to be clear: I do not support the state’s tax and land use grab from Salt Lake City. The way that those decisions have been taken from us is wrong.”
Activists have long raised concerns about the potential environmental and health impacts of the development, which is expected to bring warehouses and increased truck, rail and air traffic, along with tailpipe emissions.
Mendenhall, who served as City Council chairwoman during the consequential legislative negotiations on the port, made her entry into politics as an air quality activist. She highlighted both the potential pollution impacts of the development as well as her work to negotiate better conditions for Salt Lake City with the Legislature last year.
“I will fight a dirty port,” she said. “I did it before and I’ll do it again as your mayor.”
In both his video and an accompanying policy paper, Garbett also discusses air quality considerations but also proposes an alternative to take the place of the state-run project: The Utah Clean Air Hub, which he says would spur innovation, address air quality and climate change and reduce pollution on the Wasatch Front.
Under the proposal, the Utah Inland Port Authority Board would become the Utah Clean Air Hub Authority and would continue to be run by the state. But the businesses that are part of the project would not necessarily need to be located in the environmentally fragile area now planned for the port, he said.
“Basically what I wanted to do was give an alternative of how we could move forward,” he said. “If the Legislature wanted to try and spur economic opportunities, then I thought the productive way to do that would be investing in things that actually help us solve problems.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who is not running for re-election, has vehemently opposed the state’s control of the port — declining to participate in policy discussions around the development and filing a lawsuit challenging what she sees as the state’s unconstitutional usurping of city tax and land-use powers.
Most of the candidates vying to replace her agree that the development represents an overreach of state power, but several have said they would not replicate her hardline approach, if elected.
Former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold has said it’s important to maintain a good relationship with the Legislature, though he feels it “overstepped” with the port legislation. Businessman David Ibarra said he would work to negotiate with the inland port board to resolve any disputes before litigating.
Christian Harrison, the former chair of the Downtown Community Council, wants the city to lead a coalition of municipalities, residents and legislators from around the state to pass a local control amendment to the Utah Constitution that would guarantee the right to govern themselves. Richard Goldberger, a freelance journalist, is advocating for the creation of a Utah Export Expo, a permanent trade show that would replace the port development.
And Sen. Luz Escamilla, who sponsored a bill that will establish baseline environmental conditions in the inland port area to monitor any changes as a result of the project, has said she is in support of Biskupski’s litigation as a way to help the city navigate a complex issue.
Former state Sen. Jim Dabakis, who early polls show is the current frontrunner in the race, has been one of the most ardent supporters of the mayor’s lawsuit — a stance he doubled down on in his own campaign video posted on Facebook at the beginning of last month.
“What can the city do now?” he said, after deriding the potential impacts of the port on wildlife and air pollution. “Sue. I will continue the lawsuit. There are grave issues here about a Legislature that thinks they can control everything on the city and on the local level and on the county level. I will fight to make sure that this port is not built the way that the state wants it built.”
Dabakis voted against the original bill creating the inland port during the 2018 legislative session. But he was one of the architects of the amended bill that was passed in a special session that summer, which addressed some of the concerns about tax-and-spending authority and the environmental impacts of the port.
Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and a leader in the Stop the Polluting Port group, said her group is planning mayoral and City Council candidate surveys and will possibly host a candidate forum to put pressure on those who are running to lead the city to oppose the project.
“I think we’ll see in debates if these positions get fleshed out a bit more," she said.
But as they and other opposition groups ramp up their efforts to oppose the future development — with a group called Civil Riot successfully shutting down the port board’s April meeting — it doesn’t appear the group moving the project forward is lobbying candidates on the project’s possible economic benefits.
“The Utah Inland Port Authority is working diligently to create the most technologically advanced logistics facility that will help mitigate the impacts of growth as they relate to the economy, environment and sustainability,” said Derek Miller, chairman of the Inland Port Board, in a prepared statement. "The board values its working relationship with the Salt Lake City Council and welcomes the opportunity to partner with whichever candidate is elected mayor to create the best possible future for our capital city.”