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Stan Holmes: Accountability is the key to infrastructure success in Utah

All that federal money could be used for beneficial projects, or for more mischief.

(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.

A new tranche of federal infrastructure funds is about to start flowing into Utah and, with it, an important set of questions that beg answers before the big bucks start disappearing.

Questions such as: Who will handle disbursement and accountability? How much is already committed, and which monies are still available for grants and loans? The just approved $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, if divided per capita, would yield approximately $12 billion for Utah. If the Build Back Better bill is passed, an additional $18 billion might head Utah’s way.

Those sums could do much good, particularly in rural Utah. But they could also perpetuate mischief, as we have seen in the past. Mischief as in:

• Utah state legislators diverting 53 million federal royalty dollars to a coal export account while several rural counties had no hospital beds even before COVID struck.

• $28 million in federal funds that could have narrowed the rural-urban broadband divide being spent instead on a Uinta Basin oil railway.

• This year’s $5 million coronavirus gift to the Utah mining industry even as coal exports continue unabated.

Meanwhile, officials of the Legislature-sanctioned Utah Inland Port Authority, having amassed $225 million this year in loan and bonding authority, are now in line awaiting the rail money that Sen. Mitt Romney promised in a Salt Lake Chamber webinar this summer.

The public deserves — and should demand — accountability from state leadership and from the federal agencies funneling waves of new tax dollars into Utah. Rural Utah needs infrastructure funds to build sustainable economic development and end its dependency on the fossil fuel industry.

But federal officials channeling infrastructure funds should be wary of state projects that undermine President Biden’s climate action plan. Recall that Utah’s attorney general is suing the federal government and California on behalf of the coal industry.

A pending “Build Back Better Challenge” grant application by the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity [aka “GO Utah”] offers insights into how Biden era federal funding might be used to both solve and create problems for all Utahns, rural and urban. Working with a Team Utah Partners group, GO Utah is applying for Phase 1 of a U.S. Commerce Department grant that could yield up to $100 million. The grant application’s lead component is a Utah Energy Diversity and Innovation (UEDI) proposal to “transform rural Utah’s economy from deep dependency on coal mining and coal-powered energy,” though coal would continue to be mined for “non-fuel domestic” uses and, presumably, for export. The UEDI plan includes project options linked to research, manufacturing, entrepreneurial support, and workforce.

For Carbon County, federal grant money could be used to boost 3D Printing manufacturers and/or to expand research into the nuclear reactors Rocky Mountain Power wants built there. As the Governor’s Office of Energy Development would manage the UEDI grant, the state-funded center already working on “clean” nuclear power stands a better chance of getting its pie slice.

UEDI’s proposal does establish an Equity and Opportunity Advisory Council “led by trusted community leaders” that could set positive economic and environmental justice standards if truly inclusive, transparent and accountable to the public. Who will ensure that happens? Where should funding go? And where should it not go?

Will infrastructure funds be used to build the Salina-to-Levan coal spur that Wolverine Fuels so badly wants? Or another uranium waste rail line in Southeast Utah? Or to fund UIPA’s controversial secondary hubs, like the Savage-Romney Group satellite port in Tooele County, Iron County’s “Port 15″ to drain rural aquifers and export coal, and Sevier County’s inland port trucking terminal near the Salina coal load-out?

Instead, how about funding newer schools and tech centers, broadband, medical facilities, water and sewer system upgrades, recreation centers and transitional business loans? How about some of the “climate resilience” money going toward initiatives like Salt Lake County’s “Climate Adaptation Plan For Public Health”?

Accountability will be key to the success of infrastructure spending in Utah. Federal agencies like the EPA and Transportation Department should establish a user-friendly clearinghouse for Utah infrastructure funds information and accountability.

For without accountability, the federal monies that could boost sound development across Utah will vanish into smoke, mirrors and sweetheart dealers’ pockets.

Stan Holmes

Stanley Holmes, Salt Lake City, is a retired educator who volunteers with the Utah Clean Infrastructure Coalition and the Sierra Club’s Utah Needs Clean Energy team.

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