The Utah Inland Port Authority Board approved a $40 million budget on Wednesday, over concerns from opponents who said it didn’t provide enough transparency about how the money will be spent.
Among the projects the big-dollar budget will fund is the proposed development of a transloading facility where import and export goods can be transferred from truck to train in the inland port’s jurisdictional area on Salt Lake City’s northwest side.
“It can have huge benefits for all of us,” UIPA Executive Director Jack Hedge told board members in a prerecorded message aired during the virtual meeting. “And it’s starting to attract attention, starting to attract investors who now see Utah as a viable location for manufacturing and for other production businesses that before they just simply could not afford to be here.”
Port leaders used a portion of the meeting to espouse the benefits of the transloading facility, arguing that it will help the state better deal with the booming movement of cargo, which is expected to double in Utah by 2045, and provide export opportunities to producers in the state that want to get their goods more quickly to international markets.
The facility is expected to use the existing capacity at Union Pacific’s intermodal yard and would not require a second rail yard, something opponents of the port project at large have long feared would supersize the development. Port leaders also said that the one or two long, narrow buildings they expect to be built on the site would not serve long-term warehousing storage or distribution.
Information about how much money the endeavor will ultimately cost, who will build it and when it will be constructed remains slim. Negotiations are ongoing, and more details are expected to come before the board later this year, according to a UIPA spokeswoman.
In keeping with their promise that the development will be sustainable, port leaders also promised that the transloading facility would be built to reduce emissions, with chargers to attract low-emission trucks and construction that meets Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.
Hedge said the transloading facility would also help improve air quality in the Salt Lake Valley by making the movement of goods more efficient, cutting the number of truck trips “into and out of that facility by a third.” A parking lot built as part of that complex would also give trucks a place to get off the streets and plug in their auxiliary units, so they’re not idling all night.
“That has an immediate beneficial impact on our air quality, our traffic and congestion right off the bat,” he said.
But claims that the transloading facility would help the environment more than it would hurt were met with skepticism from many of the members of the public who spoke at the meeting on Wednesday.
“This transloading facility that you’re planning to build with our millions of tax dollars will create pollution regardless of whether the facility is electrified in any way or not,” argued Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition. “There are trucks coming in and out of transloading facilities and those are diesel trucks right now.”
The port authority, which recently signed partnerships with the Port of Long Beach and the Port of Oakland in California, is essentially “building a transloading facility” for those cities, she charged — and asking Utah taxpayers to subsidize it.
“The Port of Oakland and the port of Long Beach love it, because they’re exporting their pollution here,” she said.
While the transloading facility was a major point of discussion at Wednesday’s meeting, several other big budget items were given little explanation — including projects listed under the $24 million set aside for “site improvement / infrastructure.” Under that umbrella, the port board approved $8.4 million for “700 N Expansion” and $2.5 million for “Beagley Road - Magna City.”
Under a category labeled as “development activities,” board members approved $1.5 million in spending for “ground lease,” which a spokeswoman confirmed to The Salt Lake Tribune after the meeting was related to the transloading facility.
Other larger ticket items on the agenda include $2 million for personnel and $1.6 million for a variety of consulting and professional services.
During a public hearing on the budget, several members of the public expressed opposition to their tax dollars being used to fund a development they disagree with, while others raised concerns about a lack of specificity for how the money would be spent.
“We have had only a few days to digest this top sheet budget that has gone from $5 to $40 million of taxpayer dollars in just two years,” said Jonny Vasic, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “I’ve been involved in proper, detailed, researched, transparent budgets for decades — and this isn’t it. We need a thorough discussion about how millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent. … We need more detail.”
The budget passed unanimously after a high-level overview from staff, a few questions from board members and a promise that footnotes be added to the budget later on to provide more details to the public.
The board’s next meeting will be held in September.