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Opinion: You’ve heard about Utah’s inland port — here’s the history behind the opposition

The inland port was established as an independent entity, not subject to public input. But the public has a lot to say about it

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Members of Stop the Polluting Port Coalition holds signs outside the offices of the Utah Inland Port Authority in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021, protesting the port authority’s planned vote to adopt a public infrastructure district.

Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

There are a lot of comments about the Utah Inland Port Authority, so to help others who haven’t followed its history from its beginning, here’s a brief summary to catch up. 

In 2016, the University of Utah submitted an assessment regarding a potential inland port in the Salt Lake City area. The report found the potential for strong economic benefits, including high-paying job opportunities and rural economic development. That year, Gov. Gary Herbert created an Inland Port Exploratory Committee to “drive the development” of an inland port in Utah. At the time, he stated that “despite anti-trade, isolationist rhetoric at the national level, Utah remains committed to promoting international trade.”

The Inland Port Authority and Inland Port were created as legal entities by the Utah State Legislature, in bill SB234 in 2018. The boundaries of the port in the northwest quadrant of the Salt Lake valley were first spelled out at that time, amounting to about 16,000 acres. In 2019, HB0433 significantly broadened the Inland Port Authority’s reach to approximately one-third of Salt Lake City’s land area. Because the area included several municipalities, our Legislature felt that for it to succeed it must be an independent entity, not bound by public input and with independent taxing authority.

The approved Utah Inland Port Authority is, in essence, a government-run corporation that could be called a “city/state” with the responsibility and legal powers to develop and run the inland port in all ways, including financially, without public input.

SB234 gave the Utah Inland Port Authority administrative authority over all land-use decisions in that area and the power to capture 100% of newly generated taxes within the inland port borders. This would amount to millions of dollars in tax revenue that would not be captured by Salt Lake City for local property taxes, revenue that would otherwise have gone to Salt Lake City schools and libraries. 

Prior to the passage of SB234, Salt Lake City had approved a master plan that governed the development of the inland port area, as well as agreements with northwest quadrant landowners committing to reinvest tax revenues into the area to aid development. The master plan and agreements were basically superseded by the creation of the inland port. Our Legislature totally overrode that master plan to create their little city/state, and apparently they had the right to do that, as Salt Lake City’s attempts in court to get the port declared illegal failed.

There was a lot of public opposition to the plan, especially because there was no public input in board meeting or otherwise. And members of the governing board were appointed, not elected. The board could pretty much do whatever it chose to do, including granting contracts to contractors without going through the normal bid process. Leadership has changed and the port authority did make some needed changes, such as opening some meetings to the public. But there is still a lot of concern about the whole creation, and an audit this summer stressed the need for adequate transparency and accountability, and noted the millions of dollars granted to contractors without the bidding process.

So complaints about the whole program continue, not just about the way the program has been designed to operate, but about whether the program, as designed, can actually do what the promoters said it could do for the economy of our state. So, educate yourself on the issue and let your legislators know how you feel before they meet again in 2023.

Fred Ash is the legislative chair of the Utah Retired School Employees Association.