Utah Inland Port Authority releases long-awaited business plan

The Utah Inland Port Authority released its long-awaited strategic business plan Thursday, which outlines how the project will develop over the next five years and provides new insight into how leaders envision the logistics hub they’ve billed as the state’s largest-ever economic development project.

An 11-page executive summary of the plan outlines the broad scope of the port authority’s values, mission and strategic direction — including a look at how it will address concerns from residents about the 16,000-acre development’s potential impacts on the environment and nearby communities.

The plan states that the port authority, which is tasked with overseeing development of private land in the jurisdictional area largely located on the northwest side of Salt Lake City, will work to initiate sustainable development standards and promote green industry practices.

[Subscribe to The Tribune’s weekday Political Cornflakes newsletter]

To do that, leaders will encourage electric vehicle charging, using fuel-efficient trucks and rail, mitigating congestion through vehicle routing optimization and establishing sustainable development standards for buildings and construction, according to the plan. The authority will also establish sustainable energy efficiency and emission standards in coordination with the Department of Environmental Quality for business inside the port and create dust control guidelines, according to the plan.

On the issue of community livability, the executive summary notes that the authority will work to support affordable housing, advocate for enhanced community child care and after-school programs, and designate truck routes to minimize disruption to local communities.

To protect wildlife, the authority says it will promote building standards to reduce bird collision risk, use of native plants and encourage dark sky lighting and participation in Lights Out programs by turning off lighting at night during peak bird migration periods from March to May and August to October.

The Great Salt Lake area is a globally significant area for migratory bird populations.

The executive summary also states that the port authority will advance strategies to maintain water quality in the area, which includes over 1,500 acres of lakes and freshwater ponds, along with 440 acres of wetlands. As part of that aim, the port authority plans to monitor water and air quality and look at use of rain gardens, green roofs, porous pavement and other strategies to collect stormwater.

The Utah Inland Port Authority spent $850,000 on the strategic plan — which was developed by CPCS, a national consulting firm — and an accompanying community engagement process.

Jack Hedge, the executive director of the port authority, said Thursday that the strategic plan is a “framework,” not an endpoint, and that more specific policies will be outlined in the coming months for how the authority will actually accomplish the outlined goals. That work will come with additional public input and engagement, he said.

“Those are the things that will determine how we spend money, the programs that we fund, the projects that we get involved in, the way that the port authority actually operates and functions on a day-to-day basis," Hedge said. “That’s where the rubber meets the road.”

In addition to providing a big picture look at where the port is headed, the business plan also makes a case for the development, arguing that the import and export hub is “pivotal” for a state where more than a third of the economy depends on logistics. And the U.S. Department of Transportation has estimated that the state’s demand for cargo will increase by 104% over the next 25 years, according to planning documents.

The coronavirus pandemic has put the importance of shortening supply chains into even sharper relief, Hedge argued, as states have struggled to obtain personal protective equipment and other goods needed to fight the virus.

“The average Utahn now understands probably more than ever just how valuable and important logistics are to our everyday lives," he said. "Everything we eat, everything we wear, everything we’re sitting on pretty much depends on and is connected to the global logistics system.”

“We have an opportunity here to really make that [supply chain] more efficient," he added, “but at the same time more sustainable and more in tune with our communities and our needs here in this area.”

The Beehive State is one of the best positioned to come out of the pandemic, Hedge said, and he argues that the port will help achieve the goal of recharging the economy even faster.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Inland Port Executive Director Jack Hedge in Salt Lake City, Aug. 15, 2019.

Scenario planning & skepticism

Utah’s inland port has a long and winding history that spans several decades, but the project came into public awareness after the state Legislature created the jurisdictional area and 11-member port board through legislation in the final hours of the 2018 legislative session.

The planned development has sparked controversy in recent months over its shadowy beginnings and concerns about its potential environmental impacts. Community frustrations reached a boiling point last summer, when eight people were arrested after one of the largest Salt Lake City protests in recent memory turned violent at the Salt Lake Chamber building downtown.

Hedge, who was hired in the middle of one of the port protests, has promised that the project will be developed sustainably through the use of tax breaks to help mitigate negative impacts.

Opponents have remained skeptical and indicated Thursday that the strategic business plan had done little to assuage their fears or give them confidence in the authority’s promises.

“The newly released plan is filled with a lot of words like ‘sustainable,’ ‘renewable energy,’ ‘zero-emissions,’ ‘clean technologies,’ and ‘monitoring,’ but otherwise gives us no actual information," Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said in a news release. “It gives us no reason to reconsider what has been obvious since the beginning. This inland port will bring a lot more pollution and dirty energy into the Salt Lake Valley, and is exactly the wrong direction for our economic future.”

The Stop the Polluting Port Coalition, made up of a number of community groups opposed to the project, argues that the port must be “stopped in its tracks” until questions about pollution, construction dust, building codes and pesticides are answered.

“Common sense suggests that the public won’t like the honest answers,” the group said in its news release and called for a public vote on the project "rather than have special interests dictating the use of public money behind closed doors.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Clark Clements, a former environmental scientists yells at members of the Utah Inland Port Authority, exclaiming in part "shame on you for misleading us for believing we had a say," during t the Utah Capitol on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019.

While critics want to kill the port project altogether, its proponents argue that the area would develop with or without the port authority board and would be worse without its focus on planning. Roads and other public utilities are already being built out in the area to accommodate a new state prison and development has begun due to existing entitlements that precede the port’s creation.

In planning for development, the port authority considered multiple scenarios, including a baseline in which the board does nothing and allows the area to develop in line with the existing zoning. The authority released those scenarios along with the findings of its public engagement process last fall.

Port documents now show the board is relying on a scenario for development in which the authority promotes sustainability using tax differential funds “with the aim of enhancing economic, environmental and community outcomes." Under that scenario, the project would add $1.2 billion to the state’s gross domestic product and create 58,781 jobs.

That scenario isn’t the one that had the best results for water use, air quality, habitat and other outcomes. But Hedge said the board will work toward meeting those higher benchmarks — an effort that could require the Legislature to grant the board additional authority, as well as increased collaboration with municipalities, landowners, developers and other stakeholders.

Hedge said the difference between Scenario Three, which the port board has settled on, and Scenario Four, is that “from a reality standpoint, three is what we know we can do.”

But “four is what we’re going to push to,” he said. "We’re going to try to move as much toward it as we can through partnerships and programs, partnering with Salt Lake City, partnering with other state agencies, partnering with other municipalities in the area to try to implement additional agreements and additional plans.”

The inland port area, made up mostly of Salt Lake City land, totals about 16,000 acres but includes only about 10,000 acres of buildable land due to protected wetlands and already developed land. Some 92 million square feet of buildings already exist within the area under the port authority’s jurisdiction and an additional 4.2 million square feet were under construction in 2018, according to a report released last year by Envision Utah.

Environmental activists have argued there needs to be a distinction between the area north of Interstate 80, characterized largely by green space, and the area south of I-80, which has already begun to develop.

The authority looked at a scenario in which the port board worked to acquire the 25% of unentitled lands north of I-80 to remove them from development. Planning documents show that would have decreased traffic but would not have promoted the best outcomes on air quality and other measures, since buying up the land would have required around $1 billion and would sap resources for incentivizing sustainable development.

That scenario just “didn’t pencil out, quite frankly,” Hedge said.

The board is scheduled to receive a briefing on its strategic business plan May 27 — the first public convening since its October meeting was disrupted by protesters — and will vote on whether to approve it in June.