Funding plan for inland port projects advances over objections the public is being shut out

Money would fund construction at the inland port and elsewhere.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) A map shows the extensive boundary of the planned Inland port development, displayed during a news conference at the Utah Capitol, Jan. 22, 2020. Primary among issues described in a new report are human health impacts from increased pollution the port will bring. On Monday, a Senate panel advanced a proposal to create a $115 million loan fund to assist in needed improvements of roads, water and electric systems in the inland port area of Salt Lake City, the Point of the Mountain and in other large-scale developents.

Some proposed large-scale construction projects, such as the inland port or developing land at the Point of the Mountain, need roads, water, sewage and power to get off the ground. The cost can run into the millions of dollars.

On Monday, a Senate committee advanced a bill to create what backers described as an “infrastructure bank” designed to loan cash to fund such improvements for three land-use authorities. Those include the Point of the Mountain, inland port and Military Installation Development Authority (MIDA).

“It allows these different organizations to have access to that money through a process that is similar to what a private business does,” said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton. “You go to your bank and submit a plan for a loan, explaining what you want to do and why it makes economic sense.”

Stevenson explained his SB243 would create several committees to approve the lending of those funds, with the membership made up by appointments from the governor, lawmakers and other community groups. None of those board members could receive compensation for their work.

Stevenson added that these committees would act as a safeguard to make sure the state gets a return on the investment into these projects.

“The loan committee will determine the viability of these projects. We may be looking at 20 and 30-year paybacks on some of this. All the money goes into infrastructure. We define that as pipes that go into the ground, the roads that can be built, railroad tracks inside of these three areas,” he said.

Stevenson said he expected one of the very first loans to be requested would be for creating an electrical infrastructure at the inland port.

The bill does not have a fiscal note yet, but lawmakers set aside $115 million for an “infrastructure development account” in their budget proposal that was made public on Friday.

Opponents of the bill were frustrated that the legislation was made public only days before the March 5 end of the legislative session. Stevenson said he’s been working on the bill since the early days of the session, but the current version of the bill was only finalized while he “was sitting in Church” on Sunday.

“Why was this not addressed and fully vetted during the 2020 interim process,” asked Stan Holmes during the public comment period. “Why did we wait until the last week of the general session to put this through. It looks very suspicious.”

Several members of the public chaffed at the strict time limits placed on public comments due to a packed committee schedule.

“For a bill that will use millions of dollars of our money and you’re only allowing 15 minutes of public comment is pretty unjust,” said Johnny Vasic. “SB243 is not how we should be spending our hard-earned tax dollars. It’s disappointing and alarming that more last-minute backroom dirty dealmaking is happening.”

Vasic’s last comment earned a rebuke from committee chair Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, who warned him against impugning the integrity of legislators.

But, that allegation was indicative of the irritation felt by opponents, who slammed the truncated process as “shameful.”

“Once again, on a matter related to the proposed inland port, the taxpaying public is being shut out of the conversation,” said longtime port opponent Deeda Seed. “Why are you even creating a funding mechanism for an inland port or port-related projects before there’s even a plan in place for what those projects are or how they will benefit taxpayers?”

Stevenson pushed back at opponents, saying the infrastructure banks are a good financial decision for the state.

“There seems to be a lot of concern around the politics and how we’re handling the board we’re trying to structure here. We need people with financial understanding and people who can look at these proposals to decide whether they’re a good or a bad project. There has been no attempt to bypass any process or any public input on this bill,” he said.

The proposal now heads to the Senate floor where under rule in place it must pass by the end of Tuesday if it is to win ultimate legislative approval.