“Put all your eggs in the one basket and — WATCH THAT BASKET.”
— Mark Twain, (borrowed from Andrew Carnegie) “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar,” 1894
Left to their own devices, the owners of land in the northwest quadrant of Salt Lake City — land hard by a recently expanded international airport, three Interstate highways, two major rail lines and one of the most rapidly growing metropolitan areas in the nation — were all but certain to turn their holdings into some manner of commercial or industrial development.
Such developments have been in the planning stages for some time, many of them pre-approved by the Salt Lake City Council, which has already granted industrial zoning to much of the area. And those developments will, without a doubt, add to the contamination of the Wasatch Front’s already compromised air quality, even as they pose a threat to the fragile ecosystem of the Great Salt Lake.
Whatever else it may accomplish, the controversial creation of the Utah Inland Port Authority has done us the service of focusing public attention on the promises and perils of that area’s future, as well as the future of the millions of people who live downwind and the millions of birds who roost downstream. On decisions and developments that might have escaped our notice if done piecemeal over the years.
So far, despite outspoken opposition that on occasion has turned violent, the Port Authority Board and staff have not done nearly enough to show the public that its plans are transparent and responsive enough to justified public oversight and concern.
The board devoted all of five pages, one of them nearly blank, to the public version of the $40 million budget it recently approved for the year ending in June of 2022. It gives little detail as to exactly what all those taxpayer dollars are to be used for.
The authority has put out a slick, colorful document it refers to as its Strategic Business Plan. It is not the kind of detailed, profit-and-loss business plan that one would show to a bank or venture capital firm. But because it is the taxpayers who are funding the port’s infrastructure, it doesn’t need to be.
The business plan is more a collection of assurances, which may well be sincerely felt, to use every state-of-the-art technology, some of which may not even have been invented yet, to mitigate the damage to the region’s air and water quality.
Ideas include the use of the most energy-efficient building methods, the use of electric vehicles within the port’s jurisdiction and such features as a parking lot for semi-trailer trucks with plug-in power sources so that even the diesel-powered monstrosities can sustain themselves while waiting to load or unload without idling their engines for hours on end. The plan also boasts ideas such as development of public transit availability, outdoor lighting that minimizes its impact on birds and other wildlife and the suppression of dust that might otherwise rise from the site.
Port officials base their optimism on the idea that overall traffic to and through our area is destined to grow, port or no port, and so their efforts to take the edge off the environmental impact of that growth can only be seen as a positive.
What the plan noticeably lacks is numbers. How many square feet of warehouse and manufacturing space? How many jobs? How many minimum-wage, or even Amazon-wage, jobs and how many highly paid engineering and management jobs? How much water will be used and how will it affect the area’s wetlands?
How many trucks, trains and cars per day — both during construction and operation? How many of the employees will drive and how many will take public transit? How much of the commercial trucking fleet and the railroads — if any — will shift to either cleaner fuels or electric power? And how much leverage will the port realistically have to accelerate that transition?
In the interest of transparency, and public health, these are numbers we need to have. Numbers that other entities — the Wasatch Front Regional Council, say, or the University of Utah — need to have to make independent calculations on just how much the development of the port area will add to our environmental woes. And to figure out what the collective impact of the port, the airport and other developments, specifically the old Utah State Prison site in Draper, will be on our air and water quality and what aggressive steps we must take to absorb and mitigate those effects.
These are decisions that must be made soon, in the open, and by city and state officials who have a broader mandate than just to turn these mosquito-infested lowlands into steel and concrete, no matter how green the presentation may be.