‘We’re a Solution’ – How Utah Inland Port Hopes to Alleviate Supply Chain Issues

With a newly streamlined board, the Utah Inland Port Authority appears poised to move ahead with its plans to become a major force in the U.S. supply chain.

Lawmakers reshuffled the members of the board earlier this year, eliminating representation from affected cities like Magna and West Valley and replacing them largely with lawmakers and business leaders.

This new board had its first public meeting Wednesday when they discussed building railroad capacity at the 16,000-acre port that occupies Salt Lake City’s undeveloped Northwest quadrant.

Jack Hedge, the agency’s executive director, told the new board members that the port is well-positioned to help ease the pinch felt in seaports and the impact it is hurting across the country.

“The pandemic has exposed some long-standing weaknesses in our national supply chain and frankly in our economy,” Hedge said. “…We are a solution.”

HB443 reduced the board from 11 voting members to five, with three appointed by the Legislature and two by Governor Spencer Cox. New board members sworn in Wednesday include Chairman Miles Hansen, President and CEO of World Trade Center Utah; Vice Chairman Dan Hemmert of the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunities; Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper; and Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton.

The agenda for the meeting included Theresa Foxley, President and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, as the fifth board member, although she was not present.

The SLC representative sees a “double-edged” sword

The board is also said to have three non-voting members, including a member of the Salt Lake City City Council and two people with experience in transportation and logistics. But the only non-voting member who appears to have been appointed so far is Victoria Petro-Eschler, a first-term councilor representing District 1 in the capital.

She is also the only board member living in an area that will undoubtedly be impacted and transformed by the inland port.

“This project is possibly the greatest double-edged sword that will ever come upon my community in a generation,” Petro-Eschler said at the meeting.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City City Council member Victoria Petro-Eschler speaks in December 2021. She is a non-voting member of the Inland Ports Board.

The councilor expressed optimism about the economic opportunities and jobs that could emerge for her constituents in places like Rose Park and Jordan Meadows. But she also shared concerns about long-term consequences such as deteriorating air quality and noise pollution.

Petro-Eschler pointed to the hardships in Elwood, Illinois. Home to the country’s largest inland port, the city faces a barrage of truck traffic from retail giants but few stable, well-paying jobs. His water supply is also in danger of being drained.

“I believe that we are smarter, we can learn from history and apply lessons, and we can do it in a strategic way that brings economic benefits,” said Petro-Eschler. “But we can’t take our eyes off the ball for a moment or this thing is going to go off track, both literally and metaphorically.”

The Port Authority’s first act of “good faith,” she said, should be to create overpasses at level crossings so emergency vehicles and commuters aren’t constantly held up by trains.

“I can’t tell you how much money I spent on late fees to pick up my kids from preschool,” she said, “because I got stuck at one of those smelly intersections.”

The role of rail and road

Supporting more rail infrastructure is a top priority for the Port Authority, which secured a $150 million bond last year to build projects like a transhipment facility that will shift freight from trucks to trains and vice versa.

Hedge pointed to other proposals that will benefit affected Salt Lake City neighborhoods, including overnight parking for semi-trucks.

“Today, between 200 and 400 trucks are parked on our streets in Salt Lake City at night, mostly on the west side,” he said, adding that these trucks idle 24/7 in hot or cold weather to keep the driver comfortable keep. “That puts a lot of pollution in the atmosphere… and also a lot of noise pollution.”

The new board members didn’t seem entirely happy with how the Port Authority has invested its public funds so far, but questioned the nearly $11 million contracted for the 700 North expansion. Those dollars came from a state infrastructure fund that lawmakers wanted to allocate to the port in 2019 to improve rail access near Interstate 80.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Republican Rep. Mike Schultz is a member of the Utah Inland Park Authority Board.

“Rail should be our main focus,” said Schultz, “not roads, not truck traffic.”

Board members requested copies of the Port Authority’s contracts and signaled they would look at “escape clauses” and what the costs of breaking agreements would be. They also suggested a statutory audit of the Port Authority.

“This isn’t a witch hunt,” Stevenson said. “It just makes sense for all of us involved that we take a close look at where we stand here. Are there any contracts that we might not want to be a part of?”

Some citizens took the proposal for an audit as a sign that the new board is open to more transparency.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Republican Senator Jerry Stevenson, shown in 2018, is a member of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board.

“The public would be very grateful for this information,” Deeda Seed of the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition told the board. “One of the challenges we faced…is really the lack of information about what is intended.”

How the meeting went

Wednesday’s meeting marked the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic that the Port Authority has not live-streamed its meeting, despite the board meeting in a committee hearing room in the Capitol that has streaming capacity. The board did not allow virtual participation. At least three members of the public did not have enough time to comment. The Port Authority also did not publish the agenda of the meeting on its own website.

Community members raised several other concerns about the new board that have been shared with other bodies in the past, including how the port’s water use would impact the shrinking Great Salt Lake. Others urged the board to develop a thoughtful master plan rather than let developers and private landowners determine the future of the Northwest Quadrant.

Seed urged board members to better engage with the public and explain the business case for the inland port.

“In Utah, we pride ourselves on our hard work and a Western spirit of self-reliance,” Seed said. “Unfortunately, at the moment, the Port Authority is the epitome…of welfare capitalism based on giving away taxpayers’ money to special interests.”

Hansen, the chair, said virtual attendance was “absolutely” something the board could consider in the future. He also signaled that the board would meet much more frequently.

“My commitment is that we will act urgently,” he said, to address the global supply chain crisis. ‘We’re a Solution’ – How Utah Inland Port Hopes to Alleviate Supply Chain Issues

Joel McCord

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