Malin Moench: Can Utah’s inland port magically clean our air?

Promises that the port will result in less pollution in Salt Lake City do not add up.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shipping containers are moved by rail 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 Achilles Heel of the Utah inland port is the obvious risk that it will worsen pollution in the Salt Lake Valley, yet the port’s boosters insist that it will actually make our air cleaner. How you might ask, with a magic wand? Here’s what they are saying.

First, port boosters say the port would not bring more diesel traffic into Salt Lake, it would merely shift existing diesel traffic from truck to rail. Yet they also say the port would drive “economies of scale,” make us the West’s “leading trade and logistics hub,” and add $1.2 billion annually to Utah’s GDP. Clearly, the port intends to attract more freight, not just change how that freight arrives.

Second, boosters explain that the port will “transload” (meaning merge) every three international containers arriving in Salt Lake by rail into two larger domestic containers before they are trucked to their destination. This, they say, will cut truck trips and their associated pollution by a third. Salt Lake’s existing intermodal yard can do this now, but it rarely does, because it provides no net benefit to the shipper.

Merging is labor intensive and expensive. To recover its cost, a shipper must save an equal amount on the railroad’s “line-haul” charge (its per-mile cubic space charge) by shipping fewer containers. From the West Coast, containers typically must be shipped beyond Salt Lake to points east of the Rockies to offset the cost of merging. Not merging containers until they reach the end of the line at Salt Lake deprives the shipper of any chance to reduce its line-haul charge. Even though it is the core of the inland port’s business model, consolidating three international containers into two domestic containers where the line haul ends offer no net benefit to a shipper, which is why so few shippers chose to do it.

Suppose three international containers were routinely consolidated into two domestic containers at their Salt Lake destination. It wouldn’t affect the number of subsequent truck trips and their associated emissions. Shippers prefer truck service to train service, even where truck service costs more, because trucks are more flexible in terms of frequency, loads carried and destinations served.

These advantages ensure that nearly all freight to destinations within a day’s drive of West Coast seaports, including Salt Lake, is shipped in trucks in domestic containers. For example, 90% of West Coast freight to Salt Lake arrives by truck. If the inland port persuades West Coast shippers to convert from truck to rail, the converted freight would otherwise have arrived in Salt Lake by truck, in the same number of domestic containers. Conversion would not affect the number of containers, truck trips or associated pollution in Salt Lake.

Third, port boosters brag that shifting freight from truck to rail reduces CO2 emissions by 75%. This, however, does nothing to cut emissions of nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and fine soot. These emissions, not CO2, cause the familiar brown pall over our valley and reduce the lifespans of its residents by an average of two years.

A major study concludes that, per ton-mile, California’s diesel truck fleet already emits fewer nitrogen oxides, VOCs and fine soot than the state’s diesel locomotives. Thanks to a series of state and federal emission-reduction mandates, California’s trucks are rapidly reducing their emissions as they phase in effective pollution control technologies, including selective catalytic reduction and particulate filters.

The study notes that rail’s pollution handicap will grow over time because there is no comparable pressure on diesel locomotives to clean up. Due to ineffective regulation, diesel locomotives in California are actually becoming dirtier over time, as they slide back from Tier 3 technology to Tier 2.

What about Utah? Most line-haul diesel trucks serve Utah directly from California, and, therefore, must meet California emission’s standards. Not so with Utah’s diesel locomotives. Our fleet of switch engines stays in Utah. Sheltered from emissions regulation, our fleet operates at Tier 0 — the dirtiest possible tier. Consequently, the pollution handicap for trains is even bigger here than in California. For all these reasons, the only way the inland port’s rail-centric development could clean our air is to use a magic wand.

Malin Moench

Malin Moench, Salt Lake City, performed economic and legal analysis of public utility issues at the federal level for 37 years. Now retired, he volunteers for various environmental and public health organizations in Utah.