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What's next for Utah inland port? Leaders hope to 'put politics behind us'

SALT LAKE CITY — Now that a new version of the bill creating the Utah Inland Port Authority has passed the Utah Legislature — an issue that has divided Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and her own City Council — proponents of the inland port hope to move beyond the "politics" and get down to business.

"It's a win for the city, it's a win for the state, and hopefully it now allows us to move forward with the substance of the project and put the politics behind us," said Derek Miller, the governor's appointee on the Utah Inland Port Authority board and president of the Salt Lake Chamber.

Political leaders expect the creation of Utah's inland port in Salt Lake City's northwest quadrant, the city's last swath of undeveloped land, to be the state's largest-ever economic development venture.

But exactly how the network of railways, roads, shipping yards and warehouses will connect to create an intermodal shipping hub is up to the port's board to begin planning.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who called Wednesday's special session after striking a deal with Salt Lake City Council leaders, is expected to sign HB2001 when he returns from the National Governor's Association this weekend, according to his office.

Herbert said he expects the Utah Inland Port Authority board to have its first real meeting — with a swearing-in for board members — by the end of the month.

"The board's going to have some work to do," the governor said earlier this week, noting that the board members' first order of business will include choosing a board chairperson and an executive director, as well as setting a budget.

The 770-acre site of the old Salt Lake City landfill, because of its proximity to rail and interstates, has long been eyed as a part of the inland port development. The land, located north of I-80 between 5600 West and 7200 West, was owned by a real estate arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints up until a deal earlier this year to transfer the land to the state's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration for potential development.

Herbert said this week the property is "certainly a key piece of land" for the port's development, though he said he didn't know if it's "the key piece of land" for the rail transfer facility.

"That's going to be the kind of work the board's going to do," Herbert said.

Miller said locating exactly where the rail transfer — where shipping containers will be loaded and unloaded — will go is something the port authority's executive director will need to help the board figure out, but he said the landfill site has been considered a possibility.

"Trying to remediate that landfill would be extraordinarily expensive, but if you could cap it — put a few feet of concrete over the old landfill — that's exactly what a transfer facility would require," Miller said. "And that would be a win-win."

But those details — as well as how that project would be funded — must wait until the board can get up and running, Miller said. And up until this week's special session, that work had stalled.

The port authority board was supposed to convene for its first meeting in June, but the meeting fell apart after the board didn't officially convene because its members hadn't yet been impaneled amid conflict of interest issues.

Since then, House Speaker Greg Hughes — who appointed himself to the board — resigned after discovering properties he owns within the port's 5-mile restrictive boundary disqualified him from serving on the board. Instead, he appointed one of his right-hand legislators, Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, who sponsored HB2001.

The City Council's appointee, James Rogers, also owns property within that restrictive boundary, but changes made in Wednesday's special session specifically allow him to serve on the board. Council leaders lobbied for the change, arguing the rule would put Rogers and future west-side Salt Lake City elected officials at a disadvantage since council members have historically owned businesses and other property within their districts.

The council wants Rogers on the board because his district encompasses the Salt Lake City International Airport and parts of the northwest quadrant.

Miller said Thursday he didn't know yet exactly what day the board would convene, but he expects to have a date picked "in the next few days."

But while the board gears up, Biskupski and community members who have been critical of the port authority's process plan to fight — though it's not yet clear if that means litigation.

"Let's be clear, the bill that passed during the special session today is still unacceptable," Biskupski said in a statement Wednesday night.

FILE - Visitors at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City walk around the rotunda and other areas as Utah legislators gather for a special session on Wednesday, July 18, 2018.
FILE - Visitors at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City walk around the rotunda and other areas as Utah legislators gather for a special session on Wednesday, July 18, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"I will now turn my efforts to continuing to work with the community and nonprofit groups to find a reasonable path forward for Salt Lake City," Biskupski said. "I strongly believe, having not participated in a bad deal, that my administration has the credibility to continue this fight for Salt Lake City's values."

Biskupski could not be reached Thursday, but spokesman Matthew Rojas said the mayor plans to reach out to concerned community members and "debrief" for a plan of action.

Whether that means litigation, Rojas said a lawsuit remains a last resort.

"(The mayor) is very aware that there are a number of groups that could potentially take legal action," Rojas said, though he added, "It's really important to note that we still believe that litigation isn't really the path anybody wants to take."

"There were a lot of promises yesterday on the floor for more fixes, more legislation, so we really hope we can help lead that dialogue with the community and ensure as we move forward with fixes that we go to the community for changes they would like to see," Rojas said.

Threats of a lawsuit have lingered throughout the port authority's controversy. But a lawsuit from the city seems unlikely, since last month City Council leaders blocked Biskupski from being able to file a lawsuit against the state over the inland port without their approval.

Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity who has been helping spearhead community pushback on the port, said "litigation is always an option," but added it's too early to know whether it will come to that, and they won't know until the port authority's plans begin to take shape.

However, Seed said she and her team have consulted with the Natural Resource Defense Council, water resource advocates and other groups with litigation experience on air quality and conservation issues in case.