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Opinion: ‘Pushing too much stuff through too small a pipe’ means it’s time to build an inland port

With cargo ships stacked up off the coast of California, the Utah Inland Port can serve the state well, providing it keeps promises about being environmentally responsible

The area at I-80 near 7200 West where the Utah Inland Port is to be built is pictured on Jan. 27, 2020.
The area at I-80 near 7200 West where the Utah Inland Port is to be built is pictured on Jan. 27, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

By any objective measure, Utah picked a good time to invest in an inland port.

As cargo ships continue to stack up off ports in Southern California, the need to alleviate pressure through rail to an inland port makes sense, especially considering the current condition may become a “new normal,” as Utah Inland Port Executive Director Jack Hedge told us this week.

California’s port pressures have two main causes. One is a labor shortage that makes it difficult to receive and sort incoming goods. Unfilled demands for truck drivers and warehouse workers are slowing the process. The other, and most important, is the sheer volume of cargo coming to the United States as pent-up pandemic-related demand grows.

“We always kind of ran on the marginal edge of things; a just-in-time system,” Hedge told us, referring to how cargo enters the United States. “Boy, when the amount of goods being ordered jumped exponentially, we found ourselves pushing too much stuff through too small of a pipe. The very rationale we’ve been touting for an inland port is what’s being borne out right now.”

Like many of the port’s critics, we are concerned the Utah Inland Port may generate pollution. Port officials have said the reliance on train transport will be cleaner than using fleets of trucks to move the same goods. They also have promised to promote electric trucks and an electric charging infrastructure, while monitoring for air quality and using environmentally friendly building standards. We wish the plans were more specific.

We also wish lawmakers would earmark money specifically for inland port pollution mitigation. At the moment, the best anyone can do is to monitor what happens and hope the port’s outward commitment to energy efficiency and clean air bear fruit. If not, lawmakers and port leaders should be held accountable.

We also are concerned about Utah’s own labor shortage and how that will affect the flow of goods through the state.

But it’s hard to deny the need for such a port, especially at a time when demand is creating long delays and threatening to disrupt the hopes retailers and others have for a robust holiday season. Utah’s far-sighted approach to an inland port has the potential to create many jobs and increase local business opportunities over time. Eventually, port officials hope to send containers back to the coasts as full as they received them. That could create new markets throughout the Intermountain area — an area that will grow with or without the inland port.

President Joe Biden has been pushing California’s ports to move toward a 24-hour business model, something difficult to sustain with a labor shortage. Big retailers such as Walmart and Target have committed to help relieve the bottleneck.

Some critics have said the United States needs a comprehensive freight strategy to better handle the flow of goods. We disagree. Local strategies, the private sector and regional ports are best equipped to handle their own unique needs and to keep goods flowing toward consumers.

In recent months, the Utah Inland Port has signed deals with both the Port of Long Beach and the Port of Oakland. These, port officials said, will improve how cargo flows to and from the ports using train-to-truck systems and increasing transloading capacity in Utah, which makes shipping and distribution more efficient.

The Beehive State isn’t alone among major inland population centers building ports. Rather than taking business from each other, these will serve to connect regions in a more efficient flow of cargo.

If California’s current problems really do signal a new normal for imports and exports, Utah should benefit greatly from having a foothold that diverts this stream of commerce right through the state’s capital.