Is Salt Lake City about to lose its seats on the inland port board? It would be ‘retaliatory,’ mayor says.

Key Utah lawmakers confirm a bill is in the works. “Salt Lake City is trying to make this about them,” says House majority leader. “It’s not.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trucks carrying shipping containers move in and out of the Union Pacific Intermodal Terminal at a steady pace, west of Salt Lake City. Directly south is the future site of the transloading facility, which will be the heart of the inland port, as seen on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.

The Utah Legislature is in discussions to potentially remove Salt Lake City’s two seats on the Utah Inland Port Authority board.

The 16,000-acre port’s footprint mostly lies in Utah’s capital, covering about a fifth of its land area. City officials are locked in a lawsuit that asserts the port authority is unconstitutional, since it stripped the city of its taxing and land-use powers in the area. That case currently sits before the Utah Supreme Court.

The port authority’s 11-member board includes representatives from Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s office and the Salt Lake City Council. Those members previously pushed back on the formation of a public infrastructure district, which allowed the port authority to take on $150 million in bonds to finance projects like a train-to-truck transloading facility. The city’s representatives noted in an October meeting that their current litigation calls into question how the debt will be repaid and urged port leadership not to rush a decision.

The mayor and council also issued a letter in September with a long list of questions and concerns about the bond, asking the port authority for more transparency.

Other members of the port’s board include appointees from the Legislature, the governor’s office, West Valley City, Magna and Salt Lake County. There’s also a representative for rural Utah because the port authority plans to build smaller “satellite” ports throughout the state.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, confirmed Friday they are drafting a bill that’s “reconstituting” the board’s representation but did not outright say Salt Lake City’s seats would be nixed.

“The inland port has always been thought of as an investment that would benefit the entire state, not just one political subdivision,” Wilson said, adding that the port authority would not only benefit Utah, but also “the whole western United States’ future.”

The port authority hosted a forum Monday that included members of the shipping industry along with representatives from California’s ports of Long Beach and Oakland.

Schultz, the House majority leader and likely sponsor of the legislation, added that conversations are ongoing and that discussions have included Salt Lake City’s lobbyists.

“I don’t know the outcome of what this is going to look like,” Schultz said. “... Salt Lake City is trying to make this about them. It’s not. It has nothing to do about them.”

Mendenhall confirmed in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday morning that she was aware of rumblings that the city might lose its representatives on the board but added “that’s the most information that I have.”

It’s retaliatory,” the mayor said, “and it is illogical.”

Deeda Seed, with the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition, called any move to strip Salt Lake City’s board seats “taxation without representation.”

“It’s looking very corrupt,” Seed said.

The Tribune requested comment from port authority leadership, but a consultant who does public relations for the port said it was “too early to have comment,” since the draft bill is not yet available for review.

Meanwhile, the port authority is blazing ahead with infrastructure projects.

A large transloading project just south of the current Union Pacific intermodal hub is set to break ground in April, the port’s chief operating officer, Jill Flygare, told lawmakers at a budget hearing Thursday. That facility will be the heart of the inland port, allowing trains to transfer cargo to trucks and vice versa.

The port authority has also solicited bids to develop a “sustainability action plan,” Flygare said, which will likely be completed in the fall.

— Tribune reporter Kim Bojórquez contributed to this story.