Questions surround Utah’s hastily passed inland port

Plans to build a massive distribution hub along the Great Salt Lake divide Utahns and test Western leaders.

 

The thousands of acres of muddy fields adjacent to Utah’s Great Salt Lake are still barren and quiet. But the site, formerly a landfill and long eyed by state lawmakers for development, has become a flashpoint for Utahns concerned about the future of their state’s economy.

State lawmakers are in the process of finalizing contentious plans to develop some 16,000 acres there to create an inland port, a trade hub that would connect freight distribution centers across the West and help process international cargo from states like California and Washington. Early renderings of the project envision warehouses, distribution centers and manufacturing facilities that connect it to other ports by railroad tracks and existing highway networks. Proponents say the port, which would be the only one of its kind west of the Mississippi River, will improve an aging national system that has been over-burdened in recent years, largely owing to the proliferation of e-commerce, which has caused more goods to move through the West and around the world.

The proposed port would span about one-fifth of Salt Lake City’s land.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra

The state’s port authority board is preparing to release a business plan for the project later this spring. More than just a vision for the port, it’s a crack at urban planning that grapples with a key tension: How should states that boast distinct, fragile geographic features, like the Great Salt Lake, leverage them to keep building, and how far should legislatures go to protect them?

State lawmakers largely skated over public input when they hastily passed the bill that authorized officials to move forward with the project, pouncing on the opportunity to develop the last untouched stretch of Salt Lake City. In the months since, raucous protests have culminated in the arrests of over a dozen people, many of whom face criminal charges. The controversy only highlights the political divisions between the capital city, with its Democratic mayor, and the conservative Republican state lawmakers who commandeered the project.

Then-Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski was blunt about her view of the political process: Utah’s Republican governor and state lawmakers perpetrated a “land grab,” she alleged last winter. For Western states like Idaho, Colorado and Oregon, which boast some of the fastest-growing economies in the U.S., Biskupski’s words were a warning about the pace and scope of their own development. 

THOUGH BOTH CITY AND STATE OFFICIALS previously floated the idea of building a port in Salt Lake City, it wasn’t until 2018 that lawmakers sought to make the effort official. Early that year, outgoing Republican House Speaker Greg Hughes began holding public meetings to discuss building an inland port in the northwest quadrant of Salt Lake City. While few officials seriously challenged the port’s purported economic benefits, then-Salt Lake City Mayor Biskupski was alarmed that state leaders were proceeding with plans for the project without meaningful input from her city. Worse, early versions of a bill approving the project chipped away at Salt Lake City’s autonomy, forcing the city to divert future tax revenue to fund the project while stripping it of its full jurisdiction over land the port would sit on.

Despite loud objections from local leaders, Hughes successfully pushed a bill through the state Legislature — the final version of which was reportedly drafted in mere hours — that forced Salt Lake City to cede control of some land to a state-created port authority board and forego tax revenue to help fund the project. (Republican Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill this month that would slightly reduce the city’s financial commitment.) When the bill passed, steamrolling over Salt Lake City’s requests, the Utah League of Cities and Towns called it “nothing short of a state takeover of a swath of Salt Lake City without the city’s consent.”

“This case and how it’s decided will have a permanent impact on our city, and on cities throughout Utah.”

In a warning shot directed largely at leaders in the West who also preside over areas rich in natural resources, Biskupski said the project “represents one of the greatest threats to Salt Lake City — and frankly, to the rights of cities and towns.” She later sued the state over the project’s constitutionality, a challenge that the city’s current mayor, Erin Mendenhall, also a Democrat, has taken up in her stead. “This case and how it’s decided will have a permanent impact on our city, and on cities throughout Utah,” Mendenhall said in February.

But the business interests behind the port argue that the land it sits on is too valuable to leave untouched. The port would span roughly 25 square miles of private land —19 of which were carved out of Salt Lake City’s city limits — or about one-fifth of the city’s land area. The site would include a cargo-processing and transfer, with smaller satellite warehouse sites in surrounding districts. The Romney Group, a real estate investment firm founded by Joshua Romney, son of Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, has expressed interest in developing a satellite port in nearby Tooele County.

Critics worry that an environmental analysis has yet to be conducted to determine the project’s possible impacts on the Great Salt Lake’s ecosystem. (The board has said it’s open to requiring one in its business plan.) The lake, already fragile, hosts some of the world’s largest bird populations, and Salt Lake City continues to struggle to meet federal limits for ozone pollution. An increase in highway congestion is already anticipated, given the state’s increasing population, which is expected to rise even without the port: Utah will likely see its population double by 2050, to over 5.5 million people. 

“What's motivating this is, frankly, the greed of developers who look at this as the last undeveloped area of land in northern Utah, and they want to build things on it for an immediate profit,” said Deeda Seed, an environmental activist with the national nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

In other Western cities, such as Boise, Idaho, legislators have tried to minimize development disputes by regulating how developers communicate with locals about new infrastructure projects. Those new laws, which require developers to pre-emptively notify a greater radius of the residents around the site of a new project, aim to show “that we all have a stake in what Boise is and what Boise will be, and that we can shape it together,” the city’s council chair said last fall. It’s a strategy that could ease growing pains in the greater West — home to the country’s fastest-growing cities — and avoid the discord that continues to rack Salt Lake City.

Morgan Baskin is a D.C.-based reporter who covers development, politics and social services. Follow her on Twitter @mhbaskin
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