Commentary: The Utah Inland Port has great promise – despite strong opposition

The Utah Inland Port is touted as one of Utah’s biggest economic development opportunities in the state’s history. Supporters promise good jobs in a variety of businesses and industries and environmental improvement in transportation and supply chain delivery and logistics. But the initiative still attracts a great deal of opposition among both fringe groups and more mainstream activists.

I watched a Zoom meeting of the Utah Inland Port Authority (UIPA) board on Wednesday. The board heard positive progress reports and also discussed financing tools for needed infrastructure. At the end, a dozen or so people teed off on the project, making impassioned two-minute speeches expressing concern about water, air quality, use of taxpayer funds, public input and planning issues.

Personally, I think the Inland Port is a terrific project that will deliver on its promises. I think it can help improve air quality, reduce highway traffic (especially big trucks on Utah’s freeways), and usher in a new, regional, next-generation, high-tech, cleaner and more efficient freight logistics system to move cargo faster with less environmental impact.

In the Wednesday meeting, UIPA Executive Director Jack Hedge noted that the global supply chain is in trouble. The logistics network is “grinding down”– under great stress with unprecedented levels of congestion. The impact is rippling through the economy with delays and shortages of some goods. Hedge has been working with World Trade Center Utah to address regional supply chain problems and get cargo into and out of Utah. He believes that when the Inland Port network is up and running it can help smooth out the wrinkles in the supply chain by moving cargo faster and more efficiently through the Utah crossroads.

A big part of the plan is to move more cargo via rail, rather than trucks. He noted that a large share of the nation’s freight between California and the Chicago/Midwest flows through Utah, 90% of it via truck. Inland Port transloading facilities will shift cargo from trucks to railroad cars. Every rail car takes three trucks off the road, Hedge said, reducing truck traffic on highways and improving air quality.

UIPA board members heard also presentations on the possible creation of a Public Infrastructure District, a financing tool created by the Legislature. It could provide funds to build the transloading facility and a clean energy station to power zero-emission trucks and to de-carbonize other operations at the Inland Port.

For me, the Inland Port makes sense. The truck traffic and growth that opponents are concerned about are going to occur whether or not we have an inland port. The reality is that Utah is the crossroads of the West for cargo and delivery services. The economy is strong and consumers are buying. On-line shopping, accelerated by the pandemic, is booming and will only grow. People love to shop at home and have goods delivered to their doorsteps. That means we’re going to see more delivery trucks, more warehouses and more distribution facilities.

Given the rapid growth in miles driven, the booming transportation logistics industry, and all the industrial and business activities that are part it, it makes great sense to take a broad, collaborative approach to make the whole system a lot more efficient and much cleaner and sustainable. That’s the promise of the Inland Port.