Opponents of Utah’s inland port delivered a letter to Gov. Spencer Cox on Wednesday calling on him to veto a bill that would create an “infrastructure bank” designed to help the distribution hub development get off the ground.
Under the bill, SB243, the funds could be used to help the port authority get roads, water, sewage and power within its jurisdictional land. The bill would create a committee to approve the lending of funds, with membership made up by appointments from the governor, lawmakers and other community groups.
Proponents of the port said at the board’s quarterly meeting Wednesday that the influx of some $75 million that would be set aside specifically for port authority projects under the bill amounts to a “transformational” investment in what’s been billed as the state’s largest ever economic development project.
But in their letter and during public comment, anti-port organizers slammed the funding framework as “anti-democratic,” and an effort to circumvent the normal public process for determining how money will be spent.
“It is deeply troubling to me that millions of Utah taxpayer dollars will be in the hands of just five people,” said University of Utah student Natalie Chamberlain during more than an hour and a half of public comment. “This public money is going to private interests for private purposes to build a polluting port — all done with very little transparency or public input.”
Opponents of the bill also note that it contains no conditions on how the loans can be distributed, other than that they be used for “infrastructure projects.”
Inland Port Executive Director Jack Hedge said during the virtual meeting Wednesday that there’s a “lot of work to be done” before that money would be distributed — including the creation of loan criteria around what type of projects can receive the funds.
And in response to concerns about the accountability of the board tasked with distributing the funds, he promised that there will be a robust public process around the spending of public dollars.
“Any project that gets port authority funding or participation either from the bank or some other matter will both have its public hearing, a public process in the location where it’s going to be happening, as well as back at this board, as well as back at this entity to review and approve and authorize before anything goes through,” he said. “So there is a lot of public process to go through before we’ll get through any particular project going forward.”
As they worried about future public process, port opponents also expressed concern about the way the infrastructure bank bill was passed: in the final days of the legislative session and after receiving only one committee hearing.
The letter delivered to Cox on Wednesday — which organizers say has been signed by 1,700 Utahns from across the state — ends by requesting a meeting with the governor and urging him “in the strongest possible terms to veto SB243 to allow the legislature and the public more time to study and discuss its provisions.”
“Surely such important issues are worth taking a little time for consideration,” they said.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce, a spokeswoman in the governor’s office, said in a statement on Wednesday that “the governor appreciates the public input he has received during the legislative process and is carefully reviewing this bill.”
During his comments to the board on Wednesday, Hedge acknowledged that there were concerns about the process behind the bill.
“That legislation, it did come out at the last minute,” he said. “I understand the public’s frustrations on that. We tried for weeks to get a draft of it to review. We got it the night before it came out as well, so I certainly understand that perception on their part. But that’s the legislative process oftentimes and especially with something as broad brushed and as broad reaching as SB243 was, unfortunately that’s how that went through.”
The board took no action at its meeting, which was dominated by public comment largely from people opposed to the port, who continued to raise concerns about the impact it could have on communities of color, as well as on wildlife and the environment in the west side area where the Salt Lake City port is located.
County commissioners and a few rural Utah residents who are supportive of the satellite port concept, which would broaden the scope and economic benefits of the project beyond the Wasatch Front, spoke in favor of the development.
Hedge acknowledged the ongoing concerns about the project, including the environmental impacts, and maintained his pledge that port leaders will work to make the development sustainable.
“We are listening to your comments, we take them seriously and we are working to address them,” he said. “And I think over time, watch what we do less than what is said.”
He pointed to several projects as evidence of that promise, including an effort to build two parking areas within the inland port that will accommodate about 400 trucks per day.
Truck drivers are required to pull over after they’ve been on the road for a certain number of hours, and Hedge said many of them park along the sides of city streets or the freeway and idle their engines so they can stay warm in the winter or keep refrigerated goods cool. Offering them a site to plug in their auxiliary units would get them off the road and keep them from running their trucks all night, thereby reducing emissions, he said.
The authority is also working with the Aspire Center at Utah State University to create a “demonstration facility” within the inland port area in Salt Lake City that Hedge said will “demonstrate the feasibility and the viability” of electrifying cargo handling equipment.
As the meeting concluded, board member Ben Hart, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, wondered whether there could be a “better balance” between board business and public comment.
He said he wants to ensure “every voice is heard” but wondered whether the port board should consider limiting comments from two minutes to one and a half when there are 40 or 50 people lined up to speak, particularly since many people drop off before the end of the meeting.
But board Chair James Rogers, a Salt Lake City councilman who represents the west side, said he wouldn’t be interested in making such a move as long as he’s in charge.
“I want everybody to be heard,” he said. “To be completely honest, I was a little put off when I was at the Legislature fighting the prison and they divided us up and said, ‘You’ve got 30 seconds.’ I didn’t have 30 seconds to defend my community. I’m sorry. I can’t go along with that. I just completely feel that that was not a transparent process.”
The Inland Port Authority Board is expected to hold its next meeting on June 16, during which members are expected to consider changes to the authority’s budget in light of recent legislative appropriations.