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Opinion: Utah’s inland port will shorten supply chains, ease flow of goods

The logjam at California seaports impacts Utah every day. To say it plainly: We are trying to shove too much stuff through a too small pipe

Cargo containers sit stacked at the Port of Los Angeles.
Cargo containers sit stacked at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, Calif., on Oct.20, 2021.
Ringo H.W. Chiu, Associated Press

You’ve seen the recent headlines: President Biden talking about 24/7 port schedules, doing Christmas shopping early this year before the shelves are empty, UDOT improving 5600 West in Salt Lake City … the list goes on and on. It all comes down to logistics, and that’s why the Utah Inland Port Authority is here.

The logjam at California seaports impacts Utah every day. To say it plainly: We are trying to shove too much stuff through a too small pipe. The existing “pipe,” which is the gateway for the majority of everything we consume, is broken.

Even after the conditions caused by COVID-19 subside, some of these challenges will still exist. But Utah holds the components to be a major player in the solution. Because of our position as the crossroads of the West, we are not only critical to Utah, but to the U.S. economy as a whole.

First, it’s important to understand that logistics and the infrastructure around logistics don’t create growth, they follow growth. Our goal is to make those logistics systems cleaner, smarter and more efficient. That may seem obvious, but it’s not traditionally how the U.S. has approached logistics. The U.S. lacks a nationwide strategy for the movement of transportation and goods.

Until the creation of the port authority, Utah had viewed logistics only through a project lens as opposed to a systems lens. From a logistics point of view, the circumstances the port authority inherited at its Salt Lake City location are a glorified industrial park. But we are changing these conditions.

Why, you may ask? Namely to solve today’s problems moving goods, support Utah business, and to make significant improvements to Utah’s air quality and our shared quality of life. By using cleaner fuels, implementing deconfliction strategies, and changing modes of goods movement to and from Utah, we can have economic prosperity and growth and improve our quality of life. For example, Utah is a rail lane that is underutilized for the California ports, which is why the port authority has signed first-of-their-kind agreements with these gateway ports. Shifting some California-based cargo from truck to rail can bring major relief across the board.

Here are a few of the things we are doing today: We are disproportionally too truck-dependent (think trucks parked in neighborhoods, chewing up our roads, passing through with no stops but adding to our bad air quality). Trucks are the lifeblood of the economy, but we happen to be far enough inland that rail makes a lot of sense.

Our rail assets are underutilized and often conflicted. So, if we shift some of the cargo moved from California ports today by truck to rail, we can have a significant impact. Every rail car eliminates three trucks from our roads, while still maintaining a robust trucking industry.

On another front, together with partners like World Trade Center Utah and the Salt Lake Chamber, we are developing a shipper’s “coalition” for local businesses to give them more influence in their logistics decisions. This can help give clarity and recourse to Utah companies who today are being whipsawed by global factors beyond their control. Working with our short-line and main-line rail partners, we are identifying opportunities to deconflict rail crossings that will improve local traffic flow in our westside communities while providing logistics efficiencies for our businesses. These are just a few of today’s solutions we are working on.

What about tomorrow? Next generation technology is finding a home with the Utah Inland Port Authority. We are developing the nation’s (if not the world’s) first logistics innovation campus. Partnerships like those with ASPIRE (roadway electrification); the Beehive Project (advanced renewable fueling systems) and our Intelligent Crossroads Network (5G/LTE Network) are in place and in development.

The inland port area will be the proving ground for real world experimentation with clean, smart, next level logistics solutions like zero-emissions cargo handling and trucks, automated cargo and people movement, and renewable energy on an industrial scale. Utah, once again, is getting noticed nationally for our commitment to the future and to making it better.

The port authority does not exist to bring in more cargo, rather to better handle the volume of “stuff” Utah businesses are producing and Utah buyers are consuming. Our modern lifestyles have created many interdependencies. Utah can actually shorten the supply chain while developing the future of logistics, creating systems that achieve harmony between our environment and our economic prosperity. It does NOT have to be one or the other.

So, when you hear about planes, trains, trucks and automobiles, or when you are waiting for your next online shopping delivery — know the Utah Inland Port Authority is solving problems today while innovating the solutions for tomorrow.

Jack Hedge is the executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority. He has almost 20 years experience in trade and logistics at the Port of Tacoma and Port of Los Angeles.