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In our opinion: Now is the time to move forward with an inland port in Utah

A truck hauls fill onto the new prison site on the west side of Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018.
A truck hauls fill onto the new prison site on the west side of Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The growing penchant for Americans to shop online has led to an upsurge in business for freight and transportation companies, making it a favorable time for Utah to move forward with long-discussed plans to create an inland port authority in northwest Salt Lake City.

Lawmakers are preparing a measure that would set in motion the creation of what’s being called the Crossroads of the West Port Authority, a commercial shipping and distribution hub on about 3,000 acres in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant. City officials have expressed wariness over a state “takeover” of the land involved, which is a reasonable concern that ought to prompt legislative leaders to carefully construct a governing mechanism for the authority that properly recognizes jurisdictional interests.

Aside from that, there are no substantive reasons for the project not to move forward. The creation of an inland port has been talked about for nearly 30 years, and it makes increasing sense now that so much commerce involves shipping goods from manufacturers through distribution centers directly to consumers. Port areas — both on-shore and inland — are thriving, with some ports complaining of too much business. Inland ports have cropped up in places like Illinois and Indiana, taking advantage of rail and freeway connections between large markets. No metropolitan area is better suited for an inland port than Salt Lake City, which has historically served as a crossroads for regional trade.

The land where a port would be situated is ideally suited for such development. It is near the airport and major freeway and rail lines. The state is preparing to invest millions in local infrastructure to accommodate a new state prison in the area. There has been talk of all kinds of different potential development on the 22,000 acres stretching from the airport to the Great Salt Lake, the last stretch of developable acreage in city limits. Municipal leaders are smart to jealously protect the land, especially given pressures on the city’s housing market. But objectively, the nature of the land and its location seems better suited to industrial rather than residential development.

A preliminary feasibility study commissioned by the World Trade Center Utah was highly favorable toward the concept on an inland port. More study needs to be done on exactly how such a project would be managed and whether it would constitute a prudent investment. Salt Lake City is already home to several large distribution centers due to its crossroads location, so a question that needs to be addressed is what precise value would accrue to the economy by formal creation of a port authority.

We suspect the benefits would be significant. Legislation expected this session will hopefully clarify the process going forward, including what mechanisms will be put in place to ensure collaboration with city and county leaders in governance of the project. After decades of discussion, if Utah is ever to create an inland port, now is the time for that process to begin.