Why some are pushing for an old landfill in Salt Lake City’s inland port area to become the site of a new rail line

The property owner says the 770-acre landfill is “the only place” where it would make sense to increase rail line access “so that the inland port can take place.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) This aerial photo from June 2018 shows where the inland port will be built.

Opponents of the inland port project planned for Salt Lake City’s northwest side have long worried that leaders behind the massive distribution hub would pursue the creation of a second rail line — something they say would “supersize” the already controversial project and lead to increased emissions.

So alarm bells went off when the director of the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), which owns property in the inland port area, seemed to confirm those plans in his comments to a state budget committee last week.

SITLA leader David Ure told the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee that he anticipated legislation was coming this session that would help the organization clean up the 770-acre North Temple Landfill it owns within the inland port boundaries “so that the inland port can take place.”

That site, which extends for about 1.5 miles just north of Interstate 80 between 5600 West and 7200 West, “is so strategically located that it is the only place that we are aware of right now — no, it is the only place — that a railroad can have access to the entire inland port,” he said.

The property was donated to the state three years ago by previous owner The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

There’s already an intermodal truck-to-train facility within the port jurisdiction that’s operated by Union Pacific, but proponents say a second one could increase competition.

“Once you get the railroad in there,” Ure said SITLA, which helps fund public schools, could get tax breaks to pay for clean up of the property.

“We are not asking for the tax increment off anything else except for the ground that we develop,” he told lawmakers. “If we can get part of the tax increment ... we can afford the clean up and go on down the road and provide a service not only for the school kids but for the entire state of Utah and Salt Lake City.”

But while Ure presented the idea for a second rail line as a serious proposal, if not a done deal, efforts by The Salt Lake Tribune to obtain more details produced a murkier picture.

Unanswered questions

In a follow-up interview with SITLA, assistant director of real estate development Kyle Pasley said he was not sure what would be built on the land the agency owns and directed additional questions about a second rail line or large-scale cargo transfer facility to the port authority.

“The transloading facility is something the inland port is going to have to figure out where that would go,” Pasley said. “We have not had any definitive discussions with the inland port on that. That’s kind of their planning to take [care] of.”

SITLA has long said that it would like anything built on the property to pay for the cleanup of the old municipal landfill, which closed in 1979. The project is expected to be expensive, “so I think that’s probably what [Ure] was alluding to with the tax increment,” he added.

Ure could not be reached for further comment.

Inland Port Director Jack Hedge said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday that the port authority is not pushing any legislation around the creation of a second rail line and that any questions about what the property owner wanted to do with its land should be posed to SITLA.

“I’ll be honest, I don’t know what SITLA’s talking about,” Hedge said. “We do not have any legislation before the Legislature in this session around any kind of additional rail line, particularly on that piece of property.”

He said there could be opportunities in the future to expand rail lines but said that will be driven by the creation of manufacturing jobs that aren’t there yet.

“If and when a manufacturer were to come to town that said, ‘I need rail, I need rail to get my goods to and from my manufacturing facility,’ then there could be rail coming in at that time, and that’s the kind of thing the port authority could do,” Hedge added.

Second rail line

For opponents of the port, the confusion around whether leaders are pursuing a second rail line or what a cargo loading facility might look like has been frustrating.

“We’re at a panicked, all-hands-on-deck moment,” said Deeda Seed, an anti-port campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The huge red flag for us is the fact that we’re getting this now in dribs and drabs with no specificity.”

Some opponents of the large-scale development have also begun reaching out to the state lawmakers who represent their communities for help.

Richard Holman, chair of the board of directors for the Westside Coalition, wrote in an email to several state lawmakers on Tuesday that the diverse west side community he lives in has borne “the brunt of industrial development” over the last few years, from refineries to a quarry to an expanding airport and now the inland port. And he said the next threat could come “in the form of pending legislation to construct a ‘transmodal facility,’” on property “adjacent to several Westside communities and schools.”

“This comes as a complete surprise as we have been assured repeatedly by MANY involved with the Port that no railroad would be constructed as there was no money and no interest,” Holman continued.

He asked for lawmakers’ assistance “to reveal the true intent and progress on this effort” — and also in opposing it, if the proposal does come to fruition.

Freight loading facility

While he said port leaders are not pursuing a second rail yard, which is larger in scale than an additional rail line, Hedge said the port does have interest in creating a “transloading” facility where import and export goods can be transferred from truck to train in the inland port’s jurisdictional area.

The ability to move cargo that way would help goods move more seamlessly through the state, create good jobs and take trucks off the roads, thereby improving air quality in the Wasatch Front and beyond, Hedge said.

That’s “the kind of thing that really makes us an inland port as opposed to just another industrial park,” he told the Business, Economic Development and Labor Appropriations Subcommittee last week.

Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy and a member of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board, told lawmakers in that meeting that a loading facility was part of the $1.3 million the port authority has requested from state leaders this year.

That one-time funding would backfill dollars the Legislature approved for the port last year but then pulled back as budgets were slashed as part of the coronavirus response. Hedge said the money would help pay for staff salaries and consulting costs associated with the exploration of developing satellite ports across the state.

But while Buxton seemed to speak of a single cargo loading facility, Hedge said in an interview that port leaders have no particular location in mind for one and that they are looking at opportunities to improve capacity statewide. In some areas, that might mean developing an additional rail spur or loading dock rather than creating a big-scale center, he said.

“In a lot of cases, it’s simply taking existing facilities and repurposing them to handle all the commodities or other products maybe they weren’t originally designed for, so it’s an upgrade or something like that,” he said. “It’s typically not a big, huge, new facility. At least not in these early stages.”

Time to make things happen

In addition to the one-time funding, port leaders are also seeking an additional $2.85 million in ongoing funding for operational costs for the development.

Buxton said the port authority is anticipating it will begin generating revenue within the next five years — but only if leaders get the funding they need from state leaders now.

“We formed this organization, the inland port, and we’ve been doing all the groundwork, and now it’s time to move and now we have to start buying things and spending money in order to make these things happen,” Buxton explained.

During his comments to lawmakers, he also said he expects to see legislation move forward this session dealing with the satellite port concept and the “quadrants” that have been identified for development of distribution hubs beyond Salt Lake City — as well as an additional bill he said he couldn’t talk about.

“I won’t talk about that at this time,” he said. “But this is a big deal and it’s going to take a lot of money.”

State records show that one lawmaker, House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton and a member of the Inland Port Authority Board, has so far opened a bill file on the inland port. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Hedge said he expects the bill from Gibson will largely provide a vehicle for the authority’s funding requests and that there is no other legislation coming that’s being driven by port leaders. He said the port board does plan to support proposals that would expand 5G cellular networks and access to electric charging.