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Utah Inland Port Authority approves five-year plan, 10% cut to budget

A section of land looking southeast at 7200 West and I-80 that is part of the proposed Utah Inland Port in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, July 16, 2018. Gov. Gary Herbert joined legislative and local elected leaders to discuss consensus recommendations for the Utah Inland Port during press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 16, 2018.
A section of land looking southeast at 7200 West and I-80 that is part of the proposed Utah Inland Port in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, July 16, 2018.
James Wooldridge, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Despite economic storm clouds due to COVID-19 and continued public pushback, the Utah Inland Port Authority keeps chugging along.

After taking a roughly 10%, $250,000 cut from the Utah Legislature’s appropriation amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Utah Inland Port Authority Board approved on Monday its nearly $5.2 million 2021 budget.

The board also approved the port’s five-year strategic business plan meant to guide development of what the port’s executive director says will be a sustainable and environmentally friendly global logistics hub unlike anything that currently exists in the U.S.

The port authority’s 2021 budget includes a $2.25 million appropriation in state money (rather than $2.5 million previously approved by the Utah Legislature before it was cut in a special session last week) and $2.8 million projected to be collected from property tax differential, or property tax money from new growth in the port authority’s roughly 16,000-acre area west of the Salt Lake City International Airport.

Jack Hedge, the port authority’s executive director, in an interview with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards earlier Monday called the Legislature’s cut “significant,” which would impact two future staff positions.

“For an agency as small as we are, a 10% cut is significant and will slow down some of what we had planned,” Jill Flygare, the port’s chief operating officer, said in a prepared statement. “Among other trims to the budget, the most noticeable adjustment we’ll make is a delay in hiring two internal staff positions focused on financial analysis and business development. However, we are used to being lean and efficient, which is what we’ll continue to do.”

The port authority’s board voted on the budget and the strategic business plan in its online meeting before over an hour of public dissent, with more than 30 Utahns expressing their distrust with port authority and state officials, their dismay at the plan to build an inland port in a valley already struggling with air quality issues, and frustration the port board had already approved a five-year plan that lacked binding language to guarantee the project won’t be environmentally damaging.

The port board approved both the budget and the strategic business plan after a short discussion and no concerns raised by any board members.

Hedge “wholeheartedly encouraged” board members to adopt the business plan, saying it was shaped by years of input and gives the Utah Inland Port Authority “guardrails” for policies that will shape the port authority’s development in years to come.

“This is not the end of the road,” Hedge said. “This is the first step on the path.”

Hedge again emphasized that his intention is to “lead this organization to be the most sustainable port of its kind in the world. That is my commitment.”

But Hedge’s promises and the ambitions outlined in the strategic business plan — which includes strategies to promote electric trucks, electric charging infrastructure, air quality monitoring, and environmentally friendly building standards — didn’t resonate with the port’s critics, who continue to blast it as an unnecessary and profit-driven project.

“You cannot build a green port,” said John Giles. “This has been a sham from the start.”

Heather Dove, president of the Great Salt Lake Audubon Society, said she was “disappointed and dismayed” by the five-year strategic business plan, calling it a “very aspirational sales job” that doesn’t address the “risks” of building in wetland areas or a liquefaction zone, especially after a 5.7 magnitude quake in March woke Utah up to the dangers of earthquakes.

“Clearly you’re not listening,” Dove told the board.

But Hedge said he has been listening — and his team tweaked the five-year business plan to include “equity” as a mission in the plan, technical fixes from subject matter experts, and other strategies aimed at air quality, including idling limits or idling zone rules.

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, a powerful Utah lawmaker who has sponsored multiple inland port bills, applauded the business plan before the board’s vote to pass it.

“This is the first step to be able to begin down that path of making reasonable investment,” Gibson said, “not just in Salt Lake City, but in many areas of the state of Utah who welcome this.”