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Utah Inland Port compromise bill between Salt Lake City, state clears first hurdle

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The area at I-80 near 7200 West where the Utah Inland Port is planned to be built in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — This year’s Utah Inland Port Authority compromise bill between state and Salt Lake City leaders steamed ahead Tuesday after winning approval to clear its first legislative hurdle — but not without ongoing outcry from environmental activists.

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson’s HB347 — a bill seeking to restore Salt Lake City’s land use authority and 25% of the city’s tax increment from the Utah Inland Port Authority’s roughly 16,000-acre jurisdiction west of Salt Lake City International Airport — sailed out of the House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee on a 7-1 vote. It now goes to the full House.

The bill is supported by Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and other cities’ leaders as another fix to a law the Legislature passed in 2018 that city leaders decried as a land and power grab by the state.

But it’s still opposed by several groups, including Stop the Polluting Port, and environmentalists who have long been critical of the concept of a Utah Inland Port, arguing it will inevitably worsen Wasatch Front air quality and cause irreversible damage to sensitive wetlands and the Great Salt Lake. They say this year’s legislation is still a “terrible bill” that is more of a giveaway to developers than a good deal to Salt Lake City because it would allow developers vested rights for 40 years.

The activists remain unswayed by arguments from port supporters — including state leaders, trucking industry representatives, labor unions and rural government officials — that the port authority could actually better coordinate efforts to reduce environmental and air quality impact of a logistics industry that’s already here and growing.

Mendenhall, who negotiated for months with Gibson after she won election to succeed former Mayor Jackie Biskupski, told lawmakers the port debate has been a “flashpoint” for herself, city residents and others throughout the state who don’t understand why Utah, in a time of economic boom, needs an inland port.

But as the “smoke has cleared” over the last two years since the port authority’s creation, Mendenhall said, “we start to see it’s our economic choices as consumers that’s driving an inland port toward us.”

“It’s our own Prime subscriptions, and the things we order online everyday,” Mendenhall said, that is driving “market forces” toward creating an inland port — a massive transloading facility made up of shipping yards and truck, train and air connections to allow international customs clearance in Utah and to maximize the state’s foothold in the global economy.

Mendenhall argues this bill, by restoring some local powers, is “another piece of evidence” that shows state and city leaders are working together to allow facts and logic to drive the development of the inland port.

“The reality is this isn’t about whether or not there is an inland port,” Mendenhall said. “It’s about how it happens. And how it happens means everything to us as a city.”

Gibson, R-Mapleton, said critics have said he’s not listening because he won’t “cancel the port project.”

“If that’s the definition of listening, then I guess I’m not listening,” Gibson said. He is listening to concerns about air quality and environmental impact, he said, and that’s why there’s language in the bill clarifying intent to build a sustainable and green port unlike anything that currently exists in North America or perhaps the world.

That is the type of port Utah can build, says Executive Director Jack Hedge.

Hedge told lawmakers he’s “encouraged” by the discussions around the bill and said it “advances” the port’s “goal of sustainability” and “moves us in the right direction.”

Representatives from rural areas including Box Elder, Emery and Sevier counties all spoke in favor of the bill, eager for opportunity to partner with the port authority as “satellite” locations. If they are able to act as hubs where trucks can gain customs clearance and continue on their routes, the county commissioners argued they could take “thousands” of trucks off Salt Lake City roads.

But opponents like Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and a lead organizer of Stop the Polluting Port, said the bill’s language tying sustainable goals to the port authority’s future use of tax increment does nothing to guarantee a clean port, which she argues isn’t possible. And she worries partnerships with rural counties would only increase exports of fossil fuels.

”If you were serious about addressing environmental harm, you would use words like ‘must’ and ‘shall,’” Seed told lawmakers, rather than words like “may” or “encourage.”

”Those are the weakest words in legislative language, and you all know that,” Seed said.

Seed argued the bill is only a product of Salt Lake City “being held hostage” to the Legislature, and city leaders are “scrapping for crumbs because you in charge are suggesting it could be worse.”

Opponents urged lawmakers not to advance the bill — at least not before the Utah Inland Port Authority staff finishes its business plan and especially not before any environmental impact study has been completed.

“What will you have?” said Katie Pappas, a Salt Lake City resident. “Just another place ruined by greed. And no amount of money will ever bring it back.”

Rep. Suzanne Harrison, the only Democrat member of House committee present Tuesday, tried to amend the bill to change that language from “may” to “shall,” arguing it would “put our money where our mouth is” on promises to build a green port and “put some teeth in statute” instead of just asking Utahns to “trust us.”

But Gibson wasn’t open to that amendment, saying he didn’t want to “go there.” He said changing that language wouldn’t sway opposition to the bill and rather there would be “no support” for the inland port at all. The amendment failed with only one Republican, Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, voting in favor of it.

The bill now goes to the House floor for consideration.