Amid criticism, Utah Inland Port officials delay vote on $150 million bonding district

But director argues the port authority must move quickly to secure funds for train lines, a transloading facility and alternative fueling station.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) David Scheer speaks at a news conference by Stop the Polluting Port Coalition in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021.

Mere moments after a protest against the Utah Inland Port began Monday, the port’s executive director announced the board would postpone its vote on whether to take on millions in debt that would fund increased rail access in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant.

A Utah Inland Port Authority (UIPA) special board meeting was scheduled for later Monday afternoon. A spokesperson for the port said she did not “have any idea or sense” as to when the vote would be rescheduled.

“You’ve made a difference,” Deeda Seed, a member of the Stop the Polluting Port coalition, said to protesters gathered outside the UIPA headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City.

At issue was whether to create a public infrastructure district, or PID, with the authority to issue up to $150 million in bonds. Details about how the money would be spent have been vague, but a truck-to-train transloading facility, an alternative fueling station and new rail lines are among the big-ticket items discussed by port staff and consultants in recent days.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and the City Council issued a letter late last week questioning how the bonds would be repaid, why the public had not been allowed to weigh in, and why the port authority was rushing to approve the PID.

“I’ve chosen to delay the vote in an attempt to bring this PID discussion back to merit arguments,” UIPA Executive Director Jack Hedge said in a brief emailed statement, “and not further fuel the political fires.”

UIPA had planned to pay back the PID’s bond using property tax revenue. Legislation allowed the port to claim 75% of future property tax dollars that would have gone to Salt Lake City in an area that encompasses a fifth of its land area.

Salt Lake City has since sued over control of the revenue, arguing that handing it over to an unelected authority violates the state constitution. The case currently sits before the Utah Supreme Court.

Hedge also issued a letter in response to Salt Lake City’s elected officials Monday. He explained that UIPA could currently issue a bond if it wanted to but that the PID created more flexibility because property owners within the district boundaries could agree to an additional levy to fund or maintain port projects.

“This tax, if ever approved,” Hedge wrote, “would not take away from [the city’s] taxes or its general fund, or that of any other taxing entity in any way.”

He further noted that not all of the projects that would be funded by the proposed PID lie within Salt Lake City’s boundaries — the alternative fueling station would be in West Valley City, he said.

“Freight originates from and flows to all areas of the state and region,” Hedge wrote, “which is why the Legislature created UIPA with a focus that is much broader than just what happens in [Salt Lake City].”

Hedge also disputed the city’s assertion that the PID would pay up to 8.5% interest for its bond and argued that because market rates are at historic lows, UIPA should move quickly to secure the funds.

“If UIPA fails to promptly move forward with these essential UIPA infrastructure plans,” Hedge wrote, “such [a delay] will adversely affect other private investment.”

At their protest late Monday morning, opponents of the inland port cheered the postponed PID vote. “The public has been heard today,” Seed said, “but, of course, this battle is not over.”

UIPA representatives have asserted that bringing in more cargo to the port by rail instead of trucks would reduce congestion and emissions in Utah. Port opponents have argued that adding a transloading facility would instead bring more trucks to the Wasatch Front. They point to agreements UIPA inked with two California ports to transload their train cargo.

“It sounds like we’re just turning a California problem into a Utah problem,” coalition member Katie Pappas said at the protest.

The ensuing pollution would harm public health as well as the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, port protesters say. And UIPA’s proposed alternative fueling station would do little curb air pollution from that traffic, coalition members said Monday, as UIPA’s own business plan forecasts only 30% of heavy-duty trucks would transition to cleaner fuels like hydrogen and natural gas by 2050.

“While other states and countries are addressing the realities of climate change, we’ll be going backward,” Pappas said. “... If this transloading facility is built, it will be the event we look back at and say, ‘That’s where we could have stopped it.’”