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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Inland Port opponents’ cheers and chants boomed through the Rotunda of Utah’s Capitol on Monday as they joined in prayer, song and rally cries calling on lawmakers to repeal port authority legislation.
Still, no Utah lawmakers have indicated any appetite to repeal the port. Though earlier Thursday, a lawmaker discussed a bill to seek a new statewide rail plan — and one that he said could help find ways to mitigate impact of an inland port.
Distrust of Utah politicians, big business and the fossil fuel industry permeated Monday’s rally, where inland port critics demanded lawmakers roll back legislation that created a 16,000-acre jurisdiction in the state capital’s last swath of undeveloped land west of the Salt Lake City International Airport.
There, state leaders want to create a massive logistics hub of air, train and truck connections meant to maximize Utah’s foothold in the global economy. But environmentalists and health advocates say the inland port could have a disastrous impact on Great Salt Lake bird habitat, exacerbate Wasatch Front air quality (especially for west-side residents), and further snarl traffic at a time when Utah is already enjoying a booming economy but grappling with growth challenges.
“We live in a world where the rich and powerful and politically connected write public policy to increase their advantage and their wealth at the expense of everyone else,” said Brian Moench, M.D., president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “And there is no better example of both of these pernicious trends than the dirty energy inland port.”
Though the port authority’s executive director Jack Hedge has said he believes Utah can build a world-class sustainable port authority unlike anything that currently exists in the U.S., port opponents remain bitterly skeptical, doubtful a Utah port could mean anything but worse air, traffic and environmental damage than the status quo.
“Behind a smokescreen of words like ‘sustainable,’ ‘the greenest ever, ‘net-zero’ and ‘electrified,’ the port’s Pied Pipers want you to think it’s the second coming of the Green New Deal,” Moench said. “But in the real world, it’s just the zombie return of the Brown Old Deal. We are driving full throttle to the edge of the cliff where the climate crisis will imperil every person on Earth. But the port’s Pied Pipers want you to think we don’t need to worry about that.”
Hedge issued a statement Monday reiterating the port authority’s commitment to a data-driven and sustainable development as officials continue their work on a strategic business plan, expected to be unveiled this spring.
“As we have committed before, the Utah Inland Port Authority is dedicated to bringing the public’s values into the development process,” Hedge said. “We understand the role of advocates in the dialogue and remain focused on our work on a strategic business plan that will help us make data-driven decisions to support sustainable, next-generation infrastructure and technologies that can improve environmental and economic outcomes.”
Holding signs that read “Don’t sell Utah short, now’s the time to repeal the port,” and “Is your pocket worth our planet?” port opponents’ chants filled the Capitol’s Rotunda. Activists with the group Stop the Polluting Port encouraged donations to environmental groups to help fund their fight against the port during the 2020 session, during which they pledged to lobby lawmakers every Thursday for repeal of the port authority’s legislation.
It’s the third legislative session in which lawmakers will deal with port statute. Though state and city leaders, who are currently embroiled in a lawsuit over the authority’s constitutionality, plan to open the statute to perhaps iron out some city-state disagreements, state leaders have said they’re not receptive to a repeal.
“People say I’m not listening,” House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, told KSL recently, referring to public outcry. “If not listening means we don’t have an inland port, then you’re right, I’m not listening. We will have the inland port. But we will continue to work to make sure we minimize its environmental impact while maximizing its economic benefit for the state.”
A few hours earlier Monday, Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, stressed sustainability while he discussed a bill to seek a new statewide rail plan. The bill specifically mentions the Utah Inland Port. Anderegg said it could help find ways to mitigate issues raised about the impact on air quality of the inland port and any “satellites,” or development areas where the port authority could partner with rural counties to create smaller distribution hubs.
”We’ve got to take care of the environmental concerns” associated with the inland port, Anderegg said. “If we’re not putting it together under a sustainable plan, then we’ve missed the boat and a lot of people’s concerns will be legitimate.”
His SB92 calls for a study of not just what it will take to upgrade the rail system, including FrontRunner commuter trains, but also what will be needed statewide for an inland port.
”What does that really look like statewide? Because it’s not just there in the northwest quadrant of Salt Lake County. And how do we do it in a sustainable way? Specifically, how do we do it in a way that gets us away from diesel?” Anderegg said.
Utah Transit Authority is already looking at ways to ease the environmental impact of rail travel, such as double- and even triple-tracking portions of the rail lines and switching from diesel locomotives to electrified trains.
FrontRunner’s diesel-fueled locomotives were built in the 1960s and are the “worst tier vehicles you’re going to find on the planet,” Anderegg said.
Without faster and more frequent trains, Anderegg said commuting “will never go where it needs to in this state,” getting more of the vehicles contributing to air quality issues off the road. New rail lines on the west side of Salt Lake County and beyond should be able to be utilized by both freight and commuter trains to offset costs, he said.
The inland port won’t require everything go through the Salt Lake location, Anderegg said, if there are satellite locations in places like Wendover, Ogden, Cedar City, Evanston, Wyoming. That could mean rail lines along the Mountain View Corridor, for example, he said.
Other “pie-in-the-sky” ideas, Anderegg said, involve rail lines to tourist destinations like Moab and the state’s national parks, as well as the ski resorts, from the Salt Lake City International Airport, or even high-speed rail from California.
“None of that makes any sense if people who are on the west side of Salt Lake County can’t get to work” or other commuter needs aren’t also addressed, Anderegg said.
The price tag for the study has been estimated at $1.5 million, and it could take two years. Anderegg said he’s not sure how much he’ll ask for this session but hopes to get started soon.
”None of that is able to come to fruition without a game plan that we kind of can get behind, it’s going to take some time,” he said, noting it will also require expertise about how European and Asian countries have built out rail.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche