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Do the Inland Port’s freight rail ambitions square with UDOT’s plan to expand I-15?

A tanker truck leaves the 600 N interchange to merge onto I-15 north of downtown Salt Lake City, Sept. 12, 2023. The Utah Department of Transportation is planning to expand I-15 north of town, in part to accommodate heavy freight traffic on Utah's roads.
Eric S. Peterson
/
Utah Investigative Journalism Project
A tanker truck leaves the 600 N interchange to merge onto I-15 north of downtown Salt Lake City, Sept. 12, 2023. The Utah Department of Transportation is planning to expand I-15 north of town, in part to accommodate heavy freight traffic on Utah's roads.

The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with KUER.

Back in May, Utah Inland Port director Ben Hart told KUER the future of shipping has to change.

“Utah is going to grow and grow and grow,” Hart said. “You can't spend and build your way out of this with new roads.”

Hart took over the position in the fall of 2022 in a shakeup that resulted in a pivot for the agency. Under his leadership, the Port has a greater focus on advancing satellite hubs and on rail to lessen the carbon footprint of the project.

“Until we give people more multimodal transportation options, they're not going to be able to use them,” Hart said. “And so our effort is to help invest in these green, sustainable and more efficient transportation systems.”

But as Hart was taking over the agency, The Utah Department of Transportation also proposed their plans to expand I-15 from just north of Lagoon Amusement Park in Farmington approximately 18 miles to 400 South in downtown Salt Lake City. This plan to build new lanes is not just about accommodating new passenger vehicles but also about easing truck shipping.

A view of sparse midday traffic on I-15 looking south toward downtown Salt Lake City from the 600 N interchange, Sept. 12, 2023
Eric S. Peterson
/
Utah Investigative Journalism Project
A view of sparse traffic on I-15 looking south toward downtown Salt Lake City from the 600 N interchange, Sept. 12, 2023

UDOT’s thinking is based in part on the 2017 Utah Freight Plan that notes “Utah has the highest percentage of large truck traffic on its highways of any of the 50 states.”

The report went on to state that: “the large numbers of trucks populating many key highways in Utah needs to be carefully addressed through improved highway infrastructure in order to maximize the economic benefits of such freight movement activity.”

The UDOT plan was designed to accommodate the visions of the Inland Port under the old leadership. But as the Port has changed directions, UDOT is not taking a similar detour. They are moving ahead with their plans for new roads,

“A holistic approach”

“They call Utah the ‘crossroads of the West’ because we have so many interstates that move goods from all over the country,” said UDOT spokesperson John Gleason. According to the 2017 Freight Plan, much of that shipping concentrates on the west side of Salt Lake City.

“It’s important for us to accommodate truck traffic because it generally offers a lot more wear and tear on the roads than your normal passenger vehicles,” he said.

Tiffany Pocock, the program manager for the I-15 expansion project, said the planning UDOT has put into the project involved numerous stakeholders — including the Port and the Utah Transit Authority.

She also said it’s not just about roads, but also includes UTA double tracking the Frontrunner passenger rail to building bicycle and walking trails in the area as well.

“So we're trying to take a holistic approach while we are looking at adding capacity to I-15,” Pocock said. “We are making sure that other modes are successful too.”

The Union Pacific rail yard in South Salt Lake, May 20, 2023. Part of the Inland Port's new plan involves a push to get cargo out of trucks — and off the road — and onto railroads for distribution across the state and region.
Jim Hill
/
KUER
The Union Pacific rail yard in South Salt Lake, May 20, 2023. Part of the Inland Port's new plan involves a push to get cargo out of trucks — and off the road — and onto railroads for distribution across the state and region.

Even if the Inland Port wants more rail, she said they will also need more roads.

“The Inland Port’s going to be a great asset to the freight industry,” she said. “However, once goods and services get there, they need to then move from the Port to our local economy. So those trips would be similar to the freight transit system that you see today.”

Is everyone on the same roadmap?

“I think one of the great things about Utah is that we are one of the only states that have a unified transportation plan,” Pocock said.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, the Democratic state senator representing Salt Lake City’s west side, sees UDOT and the Port’s competing visions a little differently.

“There needs to be more coordination,” Escamilla said. However, she noted that there are many stakeholders in the I-15 expansion and that UDOT has been planning it since before the Inland Port existed.

“I think the Inland Port looks very different from what it was talked about in 2018, 2019 and even 2020,” she said.

Many of her constituents are opposed to expansion because of the air quality impact from added vehicle traffic. There’s also the very real possibility that UDOT may have to demolish homes on the west side to add lanes to the freeway. But Escamilla also acknowledged that UDOT has to prepare for Utah’s booming population growth into the year 2050.

“We know the more lanes you got, more cars are going to come in. Right? I mean everyone knows that’s a practice. But we’re also growing,” she said.

Port director Hart still says rail is the answer — but that they won’t challenge the expansion.

“Well, I would say this. I'm not a policymaker. And I think what I do trust is that UDOT is a very well-run organization,” Hart said.

Meanwhile, activists like Deeda Seed with Stop the Polluting Port Coalition are skeptical of the Inland Port’s commitment to rail.

“I don’t think they necessarily have a real dedication to rail other than as a talking point,” Seed said.

“Our experience with the Port Authority is that they'll say anything, and they don't want to get into political fights with other parts of state government. They are not courageous at all. Basically what you've got is an agency that is now striving to justify its existence,” she said.

Hart strenuously disagrees with that characterization — pointing out that the Port recently broke ground on a hub in Iron County with direct rail connections. Seed remains unconvinced. She said she still feels the Port has not provided "concrete" plans for rail elsewhere in the state and that talk of such plans has been speculative.

While Utah does need more rail options, Hart said UDOT is balancing a lot of factors — including how much Utahns love their cars. So he conceded more rail might have to wait until later.

“That's our reality in 2023. We're not complaining about that,” he said, hoping in the next five to 20 years that the situation will change. “Let's see if we can't get it right so that we don't have to just be totally dependent on road expansion in the future.”

Owner Ricky Arriola's Break Bread Barber Co. is in the Rose Park neighborhood of Salt Lake City within spitting distance of the west side of I-15.
Eric S. Peterson
/
Utah Investigative Journalism Project
Owner Ricky Arriola's Break Bread Barber Co. is in the Rose Park neighborhood of Salt Lake City within spitting distance of the west side of I-15.

Meanwhile, residents on Salt Lake City’s west side wonder who is advocating for them.

“Who holds UDOT accountable is my question?” said Ricky Arriola, owner of Break Bread Barber Co., as he gave a customer a haircut at his west side barber shop. He worries that if UDOT expands it could affect foot traffic and displace the homes of his customers. It could also potentially displace his own business given its proximity to I-15.

He had not heard of rail as an option to address traffic congestion in the area.

“If we could accomplish the same thing with rails, and not expand I-15, I believe the city’s residents would be a lot more happy with that option,” he said.

Residents can find out more about the proposal and sign up for email updates about the project athttps://i15eis.udot.utah.gov/.

Updated: September 15, 2023 at 4:22 PM MDT
This story has been updated with additional comments from Ben Hart of the Inland Port and activist Deeda Seed.
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