Utah Inland Port looks to raise millions to bring more rail, but is that a good thing?

New public infrastructure district could bond for $150 million, building a train-to-truck facility. Opponents decry the formation of another unelected body that would govern public dollars.

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

The Utah Inland Port Authority Board soon will vote on whether to form another governing board, charged with securing millions in bonds to bolster rail access in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant.

The board is reviewing a stack of resolutions, pledge agreements and documents that would form a public infrastructure district, or PID, which can issue bonds and levy property taxes, but property owners within the district must be included on the board. If approved, the PID could spend up to $150 million building up the heart of the port, according to a draft resolution. Projects funded by that money would include a massive truck-to-rail transloading facility, new rail lines and a worker building in an area covering 40 to 60 acres within the inland port, according to Executive Director Jack Hedge.

“This is a very good tool,” Hedge told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday. “We’re excited about it because we’re finally going to start doing some projects that are going to have a benefit to the area.”

The $150 million is an “aggregate principal amount” limit imposed by the port authority board.

The board previously approved a $40 million budget in June to fund projects like the transloading facility — despite protests and complaints about a lack of transparency.

Line items listed on the budget were vague, including $24 million set aside for “site improvement/infrastructure.” The Tribune previously confirmed that $1.5 million in approved spending for “ground lease” was related to the transloading facility.

The board’s directors held off on making a decision about whether to form the PID at its regular meeting Wednesday, but chair Nicole Cottle said they would hold a vote “in the near future.”

“We will not wait for the next quarterly meeting,” Cottle said.

Would it be better for the air?

Hedge has advocated for adding rail lines and loading facilities at the inland port to transition the mode of moving cargo through the area from truck to train. He told board members rail is necessary to reduce air pollution from trucks and congestion, because the amount of goods transported through the state is expected to double by 2045.

“Every single rail car we are able to add takes three trucks off the road,” Hedge told the board Wednesday. “... For every one of those, there’s not only reduction in traffic, there’s a reduction in [emissions] as well.”

The proposed worker building would include a kitchen and day care to serve people employed at the inland port.

If approved, the PID would have its own board. Three or four landowners included within the district would be among the members, since their property taxes are used to pay back the bonds.

“I can’t divulge who they are,” Hedge said, “because we don’t have the agreements yet.”

A governing document provided to board members with an “initial district boundary map” shows the PID as a strip of land bounded to the north by a Union Pacific Intermodal site, to the south by 1100 South, to the west by 5600 West and to the east by a vacant property along 4800 West.

The rest of the PID board would include members of the existing port authority board.

Hedge added that there is no plan to raise taxes to finance the port’s PID projects.

“We’re not asking taxpayers to step up,” he said. “This is coming from an existing, a portion, of the tax increment on those properties.”

‘That’s alarming’

Inland port opponents, however, raised warnings that such a large chunk of public funding would go to an unelected governing body that was appointed by another unelected governing body.

“This kind of taxing and spending authority, based on my reading of the Utah Constitution, should lie with the local government,” said Deeda Seed, a member of the Stop the Polluting Port coalition, “not an entity completely separate from the local government and not accountable to anyone who lives in the jurisdiction of the local government.”

The port authority board has 11 members appointed by bodies like Salt Lake County, the Utah Legislature and the governor’s office.

A lawsuit filed by Salt Lake City, currently before the Utah Supreme Court, argues that the inland port is unconstitutional. The legislation creating the Inland Port Authority gives it 75% of the property tax dollars from the site, while 25% goes to Salt Lake City.

Seed added that the money going to rail line extensions at the port was a public subsidy for rail companies.

“That’s alarming,” Seed said. “There are many, many layers of this that should disturb every taxpayer.”

Coalition members have also balked at the port authority’s assertions that the intention to build up rail capacity is meant to reduce truck traffic. Earlier this year, the port board approved deals with the Port of Oakland and Port of Long Beach, which would transload cargo from trains departing California to trucks in Utah.

“We’re getting containers that we would not normally be getting,” Seed said, “because the point is to reduce congestion in California and bring it here. That’s the whole ploy, to bring it to our community.”

Hedge told The Tribune that the PID projects won’t create a “net increase” in the load of cargo coming to Salt Lake City but said the amount of shipping will naturally increase over time as the population also grows.

Port board member James Rogers, who also represents the area including the inland port on the Salt Lake City Council, said he’s still reviewing documents that would form the PID and determining whether it would be a net benefit or detriment to the city.

“I know that everybody’s all about making the port look bad, but I think there are opportunities for us to create,” Rogers said, “especially for us west-siders.”