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Inland port could be economic boon; further study needed

FILE — Salt Lake City International airport Thursday, April 5, 2012.
FILE — Salt Lake City International airport Thursday, April 5, 2012.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah’s economy, by almost all measures, is doing well. But that doesn’t mean continued strong business and jobs growth are inevitable. In fact, taking economic vitality for granted and scaling back economic development initiatives is a path to certain economic stagnation.

Competition among states, regions and nations for jobs, businesses and economic advantage is fiercer than ever. We must always up our game and become smarter, more innovative and more focused to ensure economic opportunity now and for our children and grandchildren.

That’s why I fully support investigating the development of an inland port in Utah. As budgets are being considered for the upcoming legislative session, I am hopeful that state legislators will fund a study to determine the feasibility of an inland port.

Utah enjoys business success, employment growth, good salaries and an excellent quality of life for many reasons. But I believe key anchors exist that have enabled and driven economic strength. One is Utah’s travel and shipping hubs, including the Salt Lake City International Airport and our status as a regional rail and trucking distribution center. Another is Hill Air Force Base, which spins off enormous economic benefits. A third is the development of our Silicon Slopes high-tech sector.

I believe the inland port could be an additional important anchor that would help keep Utah’s economy booming. It’s the next logical step to significantly boost Utah’s capacity as an international trade center. Some 22 percent of Utah jobs are supported in some way by international business. Research shows exporting firms are more productive and pay higher wages than most other firms.

The inland port initiative was announced by Gov. Gary Herbert at the recent Utah Global Forum. The governor said he will form an exploratory team to pursue the concept and lay the groundwork for a complete feasibility study, which would need to be funded by the Legislature.

The announcement follows preliminary research conducted by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, which confirmed the state’s potential to support an inland port, citing Salt Lake City’s advantageous location and excellent transportation assets.

The study said that an in-depth feasibility study would need to gather more data, produce deeper analysis and engage leaders and citizens in a public discussion.

The Gardner Institute study noted that an inland port is essentially a logistics hub that combines containerized rail, trucking interchange, warehousing and multimodal distribution activities to allow global trade to be processed and altered by value-added services as goods move through the supply chain.

An inland port can provide services such as customs pre-clearance for international trade. Some import/export regulatory requirements could be conducted at the inland port and not have to be replicated when goods leave or enter the country. An inland port combined with a foreign-trade zone can help import/export firms deal favorably with customs tariffs and duties.

The study said that an inland port could become a major jobs center with attractive wages. It would encourage additional inbound trade, “last piece” manufacturing, warehousing and distribution jobs, local trucking and freight jobs, third-party logistics jobs and other job opportunities.

An in-depth feasibility study would determine the market opportunity; economic and fiscal impacts; infrastructure investments required; port governance options; potential locations; impact on rural economies; master planning/zoning requirements; level of required collaboration among state and local governments and the rail, air, trucking, warehousing and distribution industries; environmental impacts; labor availability and wages; incentives and tax credits/exemptions; foreign-trade zone enhancements needed, and funding options for infrastructure development and worker training.

I believe this is an opportunity well worth an in-depth feasibility study. It has the potential to become another key anchor for a strong Utah economy. I encourage our state government leaders to fund the study.