SALT LAKE CITY — Despite pushback from residents, environmental groups and other critics, a bill that would expand the Utah Inland Port Authority's reach outside of Salt Lake City hurdled through its first legislative obstacle Tuesday.
A House committee voted 6-2 to advance HB433, a bill sponsored by inland port board member and House Majority Leader Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, that allows the port authority to expand outside its 16,000-acre jurisdiction in Salt Lake City's northwest and partner with willing communities — including rural areas already eager to maximize exports.
The Utah Inland Port — a global trade hub made up of an import-export network of shipping yards, rail, truck and air connections — is envisioned to be the largest economic development project in Utah's history.
Support for the bill came despite controversy the day before, first reported by the Deseret News, after two inland port board members could be heard whispering on a public recording about engaging Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and one of her political challengers on the bill — a conversation the mayor decried as "politically disgusting" and evidence of a "good old boy" network.
The aim of the bill, Gibson said, is to introduce a "hub and spoke" model to allow the port to branch outside of its "hub" in Salt Lake City. He said it would help establish "satellite offices" in rural areas so other communities with exports — such as Carbon County for coal or Duchesne County for oil and gas — will be able to clear international customs without having to ship products first to Utah's capital.
"Now all of a sudden we're taking the goods where they're produced and we're shipping them to their final destination," he said. "We're not bringing them into the Utah inland port area and then having to turn around and redistribute them someplace else."
Gibson noted that as a port board member, one of the "biggest concerns" he hears is over the port's impact on the Wasatch Front's air quality — and he argued his bill would help alleviate those concerns because fewer trucks would be driving to Salt Lake City to export products.
"This bill is moving in a direction that would create something sustainable long-term," Gibson said.
Salt Lake City Council Chairman Charlie Luke told the House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee the council at first had "substantial concerns" about the bill. But after working with Gibson, Luke said the council was "very supportive" of the bill.
"We feel we've been able to work through most of the things we were concerned with," Luke said.
Gibson brought forward a substitute to the bill that would change a provision that previously blocked any city from bringing a lawsuit against the inland port to allowing a lawsuit — but only if a city's legislative body calls for one.
Absent from Tuesday's meeting was Biskupski, who has clashed again with the council over the inland port after council members have continued negotiations with state leaders about legislation. Meanwhile, Biskupski stands firm on her position not to negotiate on a bill that she says is "designed to incrementally force Salt Lake City to bend to the Legislature's will."
Biskupki has indicated a lawsuit against the Utah Inland Port Authority is imminent, though the mayor has not explicitly stated the city itself intends to sue. Amid fears that the mayor would bring a lawsuit even without City Council buy-in, the council last year acted to block the mayor from filing a major lawsuit without the council's approval.
Several representatives — including officials from communities including Magna and Millard County and a representative from the Utah AFL-CIO labor union, spoke in favor of the bill — argued the bill would help spread negative impacts while driving jobs in areas starving for economic development.
"The trucks are already rolling now," said Greg Schultz, administrator for Magna. "It isn't like having an inland port or not having an inland port was going to change the trucks. What is going to change is the traffic pattern."
Yet Utah residents and environmentalists continued to push against the inland port just like they did last year when the Utah Legislature created the inland port despite controversy.
Michael Cundick, director of SLC Air Protectors, said the inland port and Gibson's bill would allow a "massive amount" of fossil fuels to be exported out of the state and is "representative of an industry on the planet that is not necessarily what we want to have centuries of our infrastructure dedicated to."
"It is basically a long-term death sentence for the Great Salt Lake to put such a large industrial and polluting aspect to our state," Cundick said. "With that 'hub and spoke' method, it just furthers the very transparent nature of this, which is profits and fossil fuels instead of the health of our communities and our planet."
A railroad representative even spoke against the bill.
Nathan Anderson of Union Pacific Railroad applauded the Legislature for developing the "concept" of the inland port and the "hub and spoke" model Gibson's bill aims to accomplish, but he said the rail company opposes a provision of the bill that would allow the port authority to own and operate its own hub.
"We've invested since 2000 over $57 billion in our network in Utah. In the last five years, that number is over $305 million, and we have plans going forward to invest in our intermodal facility in Salt Lake City over $76 million," Anderson said.
"Despite not owning track or having terminals in Utah other railroads have permission to enter the market. We disagree with the idea of state funds sustaining and subsidizing that entry into the market," Anderson added.
Gibson said the "hub and spoke" model is meant to respond to rural communities eager to partner with the Utah Inland Port — and to better serve the state of Utah as a whole
"It is the Utah Inland Port," Gibson said. "It felt like the Salt Lake inland port. This has always meant to be of benefit to the state of Utah."
Rep. Calvin Musselman, R-West Haven, agreed, arguing Wilson's bill spreads "not only the impact but the reward" across Utah.
"That's the idea behind the inland port — is for a win for Utah as a whole, not for Salt Lake City to take the brunt of the impact of it or the reward of it," Musselman said. "This spoke model is an answer to that impact. It is. And it's a practical answer. And sometimes practicality needs to win over in these debates."
But Dorothy Owen, chairwoman of Westpointe Community Council, said throughout the inland port controversy, her group and other concerned residents have been hoping to engage with state leaders on the port, but that still didn't happen with Wilson's bill.
"If this is such a great bill to help air pollution, the people who put this bill together would come to us and say, 'We have heard you, and this is the plan that we've developed, and you're going to be really pleased with it," Owen said. "That didn't happen."
Owen said a "very major concern" is if the Utah Inland Port Authority owned the intermodal transportation facility, "they will have access to all the tipping fees, which will then be funneled out to other parts of the state and will not stay within Salt Lake County."7 comments on this story
"There are a whole lot of financial questions," Owen said. "Give us some chance to build some trust instead of keep going down the same road and really tattering what's really a sacred bond between the citizens and the government."
Gibson pushed back against inland port critics, saying he welcomes negotiations to find solutions, but not opposition for the sake of opposition.
"We will continue to develop and look at air quality and continue to work with the people who want to find a solution," he said. "Some of the people we've heard speak today flat-out don't want the inland port, period. Well, that's not happening. We're going to have the inland port."
The bill now goes to the House floor.