Amid controversy, inland ports begin construction this summer
Ben Hart was in Germany for vacation when he was struck by inspiration. After taking over as the executive director at Utah Inland Port Authority (UIPA) in September of 2022, he’d been overseeing plans to build several dry ports across the state that would operate heavily around trains. He found a proof of concept in Germany: a country deeply invested in expanding their railways, focusing on sustainability by moving away from cars and trucks.
The plan resulted from Europe prioritizing lower carbon emissions in its travel and transit policies.
“I think it was very validating to see that,” Hart says of Germany’s rail investments, “because it absolutely confirmed that we were on the same path. We’re not only going the right direction, but we’re doing things the right way. … I think Utah’s really right for this.”
This summer, construction will begin on the first dry port in the state, but it’s far from the only one planned. This first port is planned for Cedar City, with Iron County being a key development partner for the state to test out its dry port plans. The UIPA also has projects planned for Spanish Fork, Box Elder and Tooele in the coming years, and Hart says there are even more in the works for Juab and Beaver counties.
The UIPA has spent the past few years developing projects across the state after a 2016 University of Utah report found that dry ports could bring economic benefits to the region. The report was initiated by then-Gov. Gary Herbert and partly funded by the World Trade Center Utah, with a specific conclusion that high paying jobs and rural development could come out of these projects.
Initially imagined in Utah’s public discourse as a plan to build one large port that could serve the entire region as a global trade hub, the reality of UIPA’s plan has worked out a bit differently. By building several sites across the state, the aim is to connect trucking lines to railroads and efficiently connect trade routes in many locations. Hart says this is an attempt to both spread out the positives of ports while mitigating harm by keeping any one port from becoming overgrown.
“How do we disburse the negative impacts of a large port facility, and at the same time, how do we disburse across the state the positive impacts like job creation,” he asks. “There’s got to be a better strategy around an intermodal facility. … I think you’ve got to build the entire system, the entire network, instead of that one facility.”
Massive ports bring economic benefits to communities, he says, as well as challenges like environmental impacts and the potential for violence within nearby communities. And he says the model has been proven, while the agency’s market studies show a strong business potential.
“Here in 2023, we are getting to a much better place where people are starting to see how all of that’s going to unfold,” Hart says. “As we see project proliferation all across the state, … we can now say this will be the biggest economic development project in the state’s history. It will have a significant impact.”
Pushing back on ports
However, other groups in the state are concerned about the pace of these projects and the potential environmental impacts.
“[The UIPA] is rushing to establish polluting inland port warehouse districts throughout Utah, subsidized with tax dollars,” wrote Deeda Seed, Senior Utah Campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, promoting a petition that seeks to stop the project posted to a fellow activist’s Instagram account.
"Here in 2023, we are getting to a much better place where people are starting to see how all of that’s going to unfold. As we see project proliferation all across the state, … we can now say this will be the biggest economic development project in the state’s history. It will have a significant impact."
“Inland port warehouse development will only make this situation worse. Both areas are adjacent to important Great Salt Lake Basin wetlands,” Seed continued. “The Tooele Inland Port location would destroy high-functioning wetlands adjacent to Great Salt Lake. The Spanish Fork location would destroy high-functioning wetlands next to Utah Lake.”
Meanwhile, Seed goes further in a YouTube video connected to her campaign to say the jobs connected to these ports are “not good jobs” and, therefore, not worth the environmental impacts.
“People are hired on a temporary basis for very low wages,” she says in the video. “From impacting the quality of life in our communities to impacting how our tax dollars are spent, we all have a stake in this fight, and working together, we can stop the polluting.”
Hart says the agency takes these concerns seriously and has responded by prioritizing wetland protections in its planning process.
“It can’t just be [government-mandated impact] studies. People’s concern is: don’t destroy wetlands,” he says. “We’ve been working with developers, and we tell them, if you’ve got wetlands in your area, … let’s see if we can save the wetlands wherever possible.”
He also points out that several environmental concerns have brought up issues he doesn’t think are true. For example, some have claimed pollution will likely result from the ports. Hart believes that won’t happen but reiterates that the agency can address the harm if there are issues.
“I think a lot of people will say things like, ‘You’re polluting’ and ‘There are other environmental issues that are going to be caused by the port.’ Those aren’t true,” Hart says. “When things are true, we can respond.”
On the issue of jobs, Iron County officials have made the argument that the economic benefits are real. In an April press release, Ryan Obray, Commerce Crossroads Project Executive, argued that the region will be better off with the port.
“The intent of the Iron Springs Project Area is to make Iron County an even more attractive place for families to live and work,” Obray says. “This will bring additional jobs and new, dynamic commerce opportunities.”
Others still have raised concerns about the agency’s ability to deliver on its promise to benefit communities. In May, activist Ann Florence wrote in the Salt Lake Tribune that the program amounts to “welfare for the rich” by providing tax incentives to businesses that will keep that money rather than pass it on to much-needed infrastructure improvements.
“The Utah Inland Port Authority is passing out free money in the form of water, power and transportation infrastructure to any county or city that can make a case for building its own inland port,” she wrote. “The highly lucrative cycle of land destruction continues.”
Building hope, growth and inland ports
Hart argues the tax incentives are structured to go back into local projects like road and infrastructure development. The locations also were specifically chosen for more than just the need for economic growth, according to Hart. The choice depended on their strategic functionality. He says UIPA selects areas close to Interstate 15, so trucks can easily reach the ports and connect to the train lines.
“Being able to build out a rail facility, being able to offer local incentives, it really just allows us to streamline the process and make the economic opportunity as potent as we can,” he says, highlighting the tax structure that allows the agency to offer financial benefits to local businesses. “All those areas really make sense because they are areas where we can pull boxes off the road and onto rail.”
“We’ll get a naysayer here and there, but I think people have been really welcoming,” Hart says. “Our one exception is environmental.”