Deeda Seed: Inland port’s runaway train needs to slow down

Salt Lake City is right to question plans to issue millions in taxpayer-backed bonds without public input.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Deeda Seed of Stop the Polluting Port Coalition holds up a report being released outlining the potential environmental harms from the proposed Utah Inland Port during a press conference at the Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.

Recently the runaway train known as the Utah inland port slowed slightly.

Due to the combined effort of engaged community members and Salt Lake City officials, a vote to fund development of a transloading facility and other port infrastructure was postponed. In the weeks prior, the Port Authority was hurtling toward committing to $255 million in debt, backed by property tax revenue, for purposes the Port Authority had failed to describe in any detail.

Without the Utah Legislature’s creation of the Utah inland port, this property tax revenue would have gone into Salt Lake City’s general revenue fund. The city will be responsible for providing an array of city services to the inland port area — such as water and sewer lines, water treatment, road maintenance and public safety services — without the revenue stream generally used to fund such services. And, should the Port Authority fail to have the revenue to repay this debt, the responsibility may fall on Salt Lake City. All of this should be alarming to Salt Lake City taxpayers.

The Port Authority director said the delay was to bring the “discussion back to the merit arguments.” We’re waiting to hear what the “merits” are, but we won’t hold our breath.

The sketchy information the public has about plans for the transloading facility shows its intended location adjacent to the existing Union Pacific Intermodal facility on Salt Lake City’s west side. Its purpose is to handle thousands of shipping containers coming from California ports. They will arrive in Salt Lake City on trains to be off-loaded onto trucks. The transloading facility will also support new warehouse development.

We don’t know anything about the health consequences of all these trucks, trains and warehouses, the intended volume of traffic, or the structure and design of this facility.

We do know that the ports of Long Beach and Oakland, which suffer significantly impaired air quality due to truck traffic, are understandably enthusiastic about off-loading that pollution somewhere else. But bringing this pollution to the Salt Lake Valley, which already has significantly impaired air quality, makes little sense. And asking taxpayers to pay for it is outrageous.

The beneficiaries of this scheme are the usual suspects — corporate interests such as Rio Tinto, Union Pacific and warehouse developers. In the Port Authority’s Strategic Business Plan, developers cited additional rail and transloading facilities as the keys to their profitable development.

The bottom line is that Utah taxpayers are being setup to pay for a transloading facility that will increase pollution so a few already wealthy corporate interests can reap greater profits.

To make matters worse, the Port Authority has been barreling along creating artificial urgency, when they really should put the whole thing on a long pause until they can produce a detailed plans describing what they intend to build, exactly how much it will cost, and the human health impacts of the development.

That pause should also include waiting for the outcome of litigation filed by Salt Lake City over whether creation of the Port Authority by the Utah Legislature was legal under the Utah Constitution. This spring the Utah Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case, and a decision could be coming soon.

For those who haven’t been following the saga of the inland port closely, it’s important to note that port proponents like to claim it’s a “done deal,” to quell opposition and create a sense of inevitability, when the truth, which spilled out during the last legislative session, is not really. For example, as several port leaders told legislators, “It’s not an inland port without a transloading facility’.”

So it is far from a done deal, and the concerned public and elected officials still have an important role to play in what happens with development in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant.

We should continue to demand accountability from the Port Authority and urge our local and state elected officials to help us stop the harm from this expensive and damaging boondoggle.

Deeda Seed is a former Salt Lake City Council member and a member of the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition