Deeda Seed: Keep a close watch on the Utah Inland Port Authority’s ‘do-over’

Even with new leadership and deal with the city, port still poses a pollution risk.

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

This time last year I was standing with a crowd of community members on Main Street outside the fancy offices of the Utah Inland Port Authority (UIPA) protesting UIPA’s plan to borrow $150 million in taxpayer backed bonds to build, among other things, a transloading facility.

In addition to our immense concern about the harm an “inland port” would do to our community by increasing air pollution and traffic congestion, depleting water resources, destroying wildlife habitat and diminishing quality of life in our valley, we were also alarmed by UIPA’s lack of planning and transparency.

Now, a year later, after our community coalition of volunteers hired a nationally renowned logistics expert to do an analysis of the business case for the transloading facility and found that there isn’t one, and after two state audits found significant problems with how UIPA was spending money, the transloading facility, once touted as the development that would create the inland port is dead, and UIPA is asking for a do-over.

UIPA, created with hastily passed legislation in the final hours of the 2018 legislative session, has been a disaster from the beginning. Never adequately defined, the so-called “Utah Inland Port” is mostly just an idea on which politicians and developers have pinned their money-making dreams.

And certainly, in the intervening years some are doing very well. Rio Tinto and Colmena, the two developers owning most of the empty land north of I-80, have been busy throwing up warehouses as fast as they can. This warehouse development is heavily subsidized with infrastructure provided by the state for the new prison, along with a generous tax rebate from Salt Lake City’s Redevelopment Agency and road improvement funds from UIPA.

Years ago, after the concerned community found out about the tax breaks being offered to Rio Tinto and Colmena by the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency, we showed up at city hall en masse before a final vote to ask that they be stopped. Representatives of the warehouse developers scoffed at us claiming that their warehouses were going to be built in an environmentally friendly way with solar panels on the roofs.

Fast forward to today, and there is nothing environmentally friendly about what’s being built. There are no solar panels, no state-of-the-art stormwater pollution prevention, no sustainable building design, just one gigantic polluting subsidized warehouse after another.

The “do-over” that UIPA is now orchestrating was initiated during the last legislative session and consists primarily of a contract being negotiated between UIPA and Salt Lake City. The contract lays out a new formula for how tax differential (the primary funding source for UIPA) will be allocated in coming years. The good news is that over time the share going to Salt Lake City will increase, the bad news is that without UIPA the entire amount would be going to the city and other local taxing entities.

The contract language also requires that UIPA conduct a health impact assessment, a traffic study and a community impact assessment. A reasonable person could ask why these things weren’t done five years ago before the whole ill-conceived taxpayer subsidized effort was launched. UIPA’s new director also says they will be developing a new “business plan” and a “master plan.”

Theoretically these assessments and plans, along with input from a yet-to-be-created advisory board, will be used to develop priorities for environmental mitigation expenditures ostensibly intended to mitigate the harm that will come from as much as 152 million square feet of new warehouse development. Frankly, as people in California’s warehouse riddled Inland Empire have learned, the best way to mitigate the harm of warehouses is not to build them.

The problem with this new effort is that UIPA still has the final say on how the money will be spent. Salt Lake City and other local governments included in the UIPA jurisdiction no longer have voting members on the UIPA Board. So, there is a plausible scenario whereby the assessments and plans are poorly executed without adequate metrics and a scatter shot of poorly funded environmental mitigation measures are adopted, after which UIPA declares success.

That grim prospect means that those of us, fighting to protect our community from the harm of the polluting Utah Inland Port, have more work to do. We’ve successfully demonstrated that there are myriad harms to be concerned about, that millions of tax dollars have been wasted, and that UIPA thus far has been a failure. Given these things, we are understandably skeptical that the “new” UIPA is going to be any better than the old one.

What should give us hope is that over the past almost five years, the thousands of people concerned about the harms created by the proposed Utah Inland Port have demonstrated that people power matters and can influence public policy. Now our challenge is to ensure that UIPA’s “do-over” is real.

Deeda Seed

Deeda Seed is a volunteer with the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition and a former Salt Lake City Council Member.