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Utah Inland Port ‘infrastructure bank’ bill sails through Senate

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Area at I-80 near 7200 South where the Utah Inland Port is planned to be built in Salt Lake City Jan. 27, 2020. The Utah Senate voted 23-5 to approve SB243, which would create “infrastructure banks,” a new mechanism to stash state money to be used as loans for future Utah Inland Port Authority projects.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to create a funding mechanism for low-interest loans for Utah Inland Port Authority projects on and off the Wasatch Front swiftly cleared another legislative hurdle Tuesday.

The state Senate voted 23-5 to approve SB243, which would create “infrastructure banks,” a new mechanism to stash state money to be used as loans for future Utah Inland Port Authority projects, including projects in rural areas. It now goes to the House.

House lawmakers announced Friday $75 million would be set aside in that type of fund specifically for port authority projects. The state budget includes $115 million total for the loan fund, but $40 million of that money would be used for rural broadband infrastructure not specifically related to the inland port, according to House staff.

Envisioned as a “hub-and-spoke” model, state leaders want the Utah Port Authority to be based in its current project area in Salt Lake City — the creation of which spurred controversy and a now yearslong legal battle with Salt Lake City leaders — while also having “spokes” in rural areas that also increase exports there, a concept that has rural counties eager for job growth chomping at the bit.

The Senate vote came one day after it got its first public hearing in front of a Senate committee, where dozens of anti-port activists showed up both in person and virtually to speak against the bill, calling it yet another inland port bill drafted behind the scenes and unveiled with little time for the public to digest it.

Bill sponsor Senate Budget Chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, put forth several changes to the bill on the Senate floor, including one to clarify tax increment (or new property tax generated in project areas) created in one area can’t be used in a different area.

“Their loans have to be based on what is created on that particular spoke line,” Stevenson said.

Another provision was added in the bill that would allow up to $15 million for a “vehicle electrification pilot project” infrastructure loan with Utah State University that would also entail matching funds and potentially loan forgiveness.

The change to the bill also specifies infrastructure loan requests would be given priority if they further “the policies and best practices incorporated into the environmental sustainability component of the authority’s business plan,” according to the bill.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, spoke against the bill, saying that Salt Lake County didn’t have a seat on the committee that would manage the loan fund, which is made up of five appointed members: two appointed by the governor, one by the House speaker, one by the Senate president, and one by the chairperson of the Permanent Community Impact Fund Board.

Sen. David Buxton, R-Roy, who is also a Utah Inland Port Authority board member, spoke in support, saying it’s time for the state to begin to help fund inland port projects.

“We’re to the point now where we’ve gotten through the public discourse,” Buxton said. “We’re to the point in time where now we have to put our money where our mouth is.”

Stevenson, before the vote, said it would move the port project forward.

“I realize there are people that are in opposition to this, but it seems to me that this is making more and more sense as we move forward,” he said. “It’s good for the economy for the state of Utah, it’s good for the job base of the state of Utah.”