Commentary: A high-tech, sustainable, Utah Inland Port Authority system can help alleviate pressure on global supply chain

The opportunity and vision for Utah’s Inland Port was always big. But with container ships piling up at the West Coast ports, and the global supply chain backed up and seriously stressed, the current work of Utah’s Port Authority system at the “crossroads of the west” is even more urgent.  

Jack Hedge, who left a job as an executive at the Port of Los Angeles (the largest container port complex in North America), said he was excited to become executive director of Utah’s Inland Port Authority because the opportunity was unique and the possibilities were great. 

Two years later, the vision has magnified beyond his expectations and he’s more excited than ever. “I came here because there was no other prospect like this. I thought it could produce an affirmative change in the industry. Today, I’m not being hyperbolic when I say this has expanded into a truly transformational opportunity. It’s going to change the way goods are moved around the country. It will set a standard for the world.”

Utah’s Inland Port, located west of the Salt Lake City International Airport, is envisioned to be an intermodal hub, a logistics center, and a focal point for assembly, manufacturing and warehousing. But it’s more than that. Complemented by satellite ports, it will become a full-service regional logistics system. 

Hedge notes that an immense amount of cargo flows both directions through Utah. The rail lines, highways and interstate freeways from a large portion of the country run through Utah. If it’s going to the California coast, it’s coming through Utah, he said. Products from Asia enter the west coast ports and are shipped through Utah to large markets in the Midwest. Conversely, myriad products produced in the Midwest and mountain states flow through Utah to the coastal ports and on to Asian markets. 

Currently, Utah is getting the tailpipe emissions and wear and tear on its roads and rail from all that traffic, but cargo is mostly just passing through. Some economic value is left behind, but not much. However, if the cargo stops in Utah to be transferred to more efficient modes of transportation, or for assembly, value add and manufacturing, the jobs and economic value will be immensely larger.

Switching cargo from trucks to rail in Utah will take thousands of trucks off the road. And doing some of the paperwork, inspections and customs processing in Utah will allow the big shipping containers to move faster through the coastal ports.

Hedge and the Port Authority Board want the Utah port to be the most high-tech and environmentally-friendly port in the world. That means almost all equipment, heating and cooling, and transport vehicles will be electrified, eliminating gas and diesel engines. Clean hydrogen might play a role. Dynamic, in-roadway charging may be investigated. 

“We will meet our sustainability objectives,” Hedge said, making Utah the place where companies come to decarbonize their supply chain. “They’ll want to move business to Utah to utilize the sustainable system we set up. This helps them achieve their corporate goals to reduce carbon emissions, along with their market-driven goals.”

Hedge said the market wants to go clean and emissions free. “We’ll provide automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, all with zero emissions. We’ll provide a platform for businesses to operate efficiently, productively and sustainably. These are issues the market wants addressed. The economy is changing, the market is changing, and Utah will be at the forefront.”

The proper role for the Inland Port Authority is to provide a level playing field with infrastructure that enables the private sector to be efficient, productive and sustainable, Hedge said. That may mean things like providing an extra-long loop track to accommodate extremely long trains, and making the truck/rail transfers as efficient as possible. Hedge said the Port won’t own the warehouses, manufacturing facilities or cranes, but it will provide the infrastructure needed to operate. That means designing the entire complex for efficient truck/rail loading and unloading and intermodal transfers.

Infrastructure includes roads and utilities, but perhaps also telecommunications and 5G technology for data transfer, electric battery charging stations and hydrogen fueling.

Much like a city would design an industrial park and provide utilities and roads to attract warehousing and manufacturing businesses, Hedge is confident that if the Port Authority provides the high-tech, low-emissions infrastructure needed in the transportation and intermodal logistics industry, businesses will flock to it.

“We’ll help will speed up and facilitate the logistics, making the basic infrastructure investments that will leverage additional private sector investments and additional intermodal activities,” Hedge said, including manufacturing and value-add operations.

“We’ll be the perfect place for reshoring. We’ll help companies achieve just-in-time delivery. Getting products and materials in and out is becoming a bigger problem and we’ll help with that.” 

Hedge said that creating satellite ports in different parts of the state to knit together good freight movement to and through Utah will be perhaps the most transformative things done at the Port Authority.

“lt’s less about a place, and more about the system and how it functions efficiently and effectively,” he said. Nodes will be created on the network where value-added services can be located, creating opportunity for producers to take advantage of the system, not just for transportation, but also for assembly, manufacturing and value add.

“We’re doing a lot of planning, trying to figure out right places for satellite locations,” he said. “The satellite concept is really what is transformative. This is where the game-changing opportunity is for Utah. It will create jobs and economic activity in rural Utah.”

For example, mining and agricultural products are driven from interior states every day, several hundred miles, all the way to Long Beach to be loaded onto ships bound for Asia. There are numerous facilities along those routes that are unused or not used to capacity. Hedge said the Port Authority can repurpose these facilities so product can be transferred from trucks to containers and put on trains so they can more quickly move through coastal ports. Assembly, manufacturing and warehousing could be added to satellite port locations. The services will reduce costs for producers and create economic value in rural areas.

The Port Authority has spent the last several months assessing logistics assets all over the state, overlaid with what cargo is moving along what corridors. Analysts are looking at sites where assets and cargo converge to determine the best satellite port locations. In the next few months, memorandums of understanding will be signed with local leaders for particular sites. Business plans will then be developed identifying users and services needed, public processes will be engaged, and investments and funding sources will be investigated.  

The satellite approach is unique, said Hedge. “We’re not in just one spot; this is a whole system. We have a unique position geographically. We have that direct inland connection to three main west coast gateways. And we have access to midwestern markets. All of that is exclusive to Utah. It’s really transformational. It’s how we deal with the future of logistics.”

Hedge said the Port Authority will have a major announcement and a public process dealing with three to four satellite ports this upcoming year.

Hedge said he was recently at Long Beach and witnessed the bottlenecks. “I could see 20-25 container ships out waiting on the ocean. It’s amazing how much cargo is going through. We can help the process be more fluid, with more velocity, and get to markets faster and cheaper. Using our rail yard, we could double cargo by rail and reduce cargo by truck. That will move cargo faster through the coastal ports and speed shipments to Chicago.”

Government stimulus is expected to fuel a hyper-economic recovery, putting even more pressure on supply chains.

It seems the Utah Inland Port can’t come fast enough.