SALT LAKE CITY — After the Utah Legislature passed several bills friendly to the Utah Port Authority's goal to create a global trade hub in the Crossroads of the West, the port board on Wednesday celebrated the legislative successes and looked ahead to project's future.
One of the board's first orders of business? A presentation from the port authority's hired public engagement team, Envision Utah, that emphasized what would happen to the roughly 16,000 acres in Salt Lake City's northwest if the port authority does not plan the area.
Their main message: the trucks and traffic that environmental groups and residents fear are coming, regardless.
"It's not a question of whether this area is going to develop, but how," Ari Bruening, of Envision Utah, told the port board.
The port authority hired Envision Utah on a $100,000 contract to conduct multiple phases of public outreach, develop scenarios and form a vision for the port authority.
So what if the Utah Port Authority does nothing? Bruening presented Envision Utah's preliminary analysis alongside Robert Grow, Envision Utah's president and CEO, showing that existing zoning in the area already allows landowners to build out industrial development.
Bruening laid out what that could mean — including a scenario if the area was 90 percent developed under existing zoning.
Imagine a sea of warehouses, with a combined total of over 382 million square feet. For perspective, that could be more than 380 Amazon centers or 2,138 Walmart supercenters, and could equate to more than 1.5 million additional vehicle daily trips, according to the Envision Utah analysis.
"Now don't panic because build out is probably decades away," Bruening said.
While Bruening said "you might think" that would significantly increase pollution emissions, Envision Utah's projections of air quality under those scenarios don't show a dramatic increase in air quality since vehicles are expected to become cleaner over time.
The presentation came just hours before Gov. Gary Herbert's office announced he had signed into law HB433, which allows the port to expand into rural areas of the state.
Because of the area's placement at the intersection of two interstate freeways, major national railways and the Salt Lake City International Airport, "this connectivity puts the area at a high demand for warehousing and distribution centers," the Envision Utah report states.
"Projections show that freight tons moving on the nation's transportation network will grow 40 percent in the next three decades while the value of the freight will almost double, increasing by 92 percent," the report continues. "This increase in freight will mean more demand for infrastructure and facilities in Utah."
But Grow said the port authority is uniquely positioned to use its powers to plan a better future for the area — including proactive planning and policies to help reduce emissions, such as setting contractual requirements that only allow cleaner trucks to commute in and out of the port.
"This is a fascinating legal issue about what rights do you have as an authority to regulate the kinds of emissions that are created by this over time," Grow said, noting that local governments cannot legally block certain polluting trucks, but the port authority, through a contract, could.
Another presentation by Theresa Foxley, president and CEO of EDCUtah, a private agency aimed at attracting businesses to the state, outlined why manufacturing jobs — rather than warehouse or distribution jobs — are seen as the "holy grail of economic development."
"The conclusion here," Bruening said, "is this area's going to develop. The question is how do we want it to develop, and as a port authority, these are the questions we want to ask."
The port authority's interim executive director, Chris Conabee, said the port authority has the power to "mitigate" problems concerning the community, and "the best way we can do that is by bringing experts around the table." He said the port authority is planning a slew of working groups to do just that.
"Our green port, on its worst day, will look a lot better than what that zoning looks like right now," Conabee said, saying the port board has the opportunity now to plan a better future. "I feel like our best days are ahead of us."
During the presentations, Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City Councilwoman and a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the port's most outspoken critics, tweeted criticism of the presentation.
"Envision Utah is trying to sell the port suggesting that development will happen anyway. But the truth is more complicated," Seed tweeted. "And of course Envision Utah has no credibility in this process that the port board is paying them to conduct."
At the end of Wednesday's meeting, a handful of concerned residents continued to echo the same concerns they've shared since the creation of the port authority, urging leaders to stop the port altogether based on concerns of expanding fossil fuel exports and environmental damage.
But one resident, Thea Brannon, said she could see the port was likely coming whether residents and environmentalists like it or not.11 comments on this story
"I guess I realize, being as old as I am, that this port is going to happen," she said. "So you have the power. You have the power to restrict what's coming to the port, what happens in the port, and I urge you to make it as clean and as forward-looking and truly world-class as it possibly can be."
Correction: An earlier version changed a correct estimate of 382 million square feet of possible warehouse development to 382,000 square feet. The estimate is, in fact, 382 million square feet.