The inland port has become a central issue in this year’s Salt Lake City mayoral race and has the eight candidates considering how they would work with state Republican leaders on the project.
During their only televised debate before the Aug. 13 primary, candidates were asked what their relationship with the Republican-dominated legislature and a new governor in 2021 would look like.
“We have a tense relationship with the state and I think we probably always will,” said former city councilman Stan Penfold.
As the state’s capital city and a large economic driver, “we bring a lot to the table, and I think many times we behave a little bit like we’re victims to whatever the state is going to do,” Penfold said. “I think we need to shift that perspective. I expect to be at the table.”
Last year the state took control of some 16,000 acres near the Salt Lake Airport to build a commercial trading hub known as the Utah Inland Port. The bill was passed in the final hours of the 2018 legislative session and was later renegotiated by members of the Salt Lake City Council after Mayor Jackie Biskupski abandoned talks with Gov. Gary Herbert and other state leaders.
Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall was quick to point out that she and other council members stepped in to renegotiate some parts of the legislation.
“Decisions are being made and our mayor needs to be at that table,” she said. “We’ve got a long way to go on the inland port. But … as a Democrat, as a woman in Salt Lake City, I still know how to work with the state.”
The inland port is unpopular in Salt Lake — protestors have disrupted several meetings and Biskupski is now suing over the project’s taxing and land use authority.
Most candidates for mayor have also criticized the way the port was created and believe it should continue to be renegotiated.
Current and former state senators Luz Escamilla and Jim Dabakis each touted their legislative experience and their ability to work across the aisle.
Earlier this year, Escamilla — who represents much of the undeveloped land the inland port sits on — passed a bill to monitor air quality and other environmental data as the project gets up and running.
Escamilla said one of the reasons she decided to run for mayor is because “the city was in chaos” after the legislation creating the inland port passed. “We need to be discussing this with the state and we need to make sure that we’re negotiating important pieces,” she said.
Dabakis pointed to his work helping to negotiate a landmark 2015 bill that created housing and employment protections for LGBT Utahns as an example of working with Republicans.
But Dabakis also said that six years in the legislature taught him that “the Republicans — the supermajority — pretty much do what they want.”
Last year when the inland port was created, “they looked down on that west side and they saw 20% of the city’s land and they said, ‘We’re going to take it and we don’t share values with the people of Salt Lake. We don’t care about air pollution the way they care,’” Dabakis said.
Most candidates believe the city should keep litigating over the project. Just two — Rainer Huck and Richard Goldberger — say the city’s lawsuit is a waste of taxpayer money.
“The fact of the matter is, the state holds all the cards,” Huck said. “Maybe there are some things we can do with negotiations still, but the lawsuit will end badly for Salt Lake City.”
Goldberger suggested moving the inland port to Wendover, a town on the Utah-Nevada border.
“Tooele County would love this,” he said. “Wendover, Utah, has an airport, rail hub, roads. A fantastic location for an intermodal shipping center.”
One candidate’s opposition to the inland port seems to have stood out to the port’s board chairman Derek Miller. David Garbett shared an exchange one of his canvassers had with Miller on his doorstep last week.
“He knocked on the door and said, ‘I’m here with David,’ and Derek said, ‘Well, David’s against the inland port.’ And my canvasser said, ‘Well, just like everyone else,’ and he said, ‘No, but David’s really against it.’ … I’ll take that endorsement,” Garbett said.
He added that he used to work for the environmental advocacy group Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which he called “an organization that is probably even less popular than Salt Lake City on Capitol Hill.”
Garbett said friction and differing political views never stopped him from working with either lawmakers from both parties or the state’s Republican governor.
“We’ll have some big opportunities here in the future to work on things like the Winter Olympics, (and) work on infrastructure. I’m excited about that,” he said.
Businessman and philanthropist David Ibarra said the inland port should only move forward if it is “environmentally net-zero.”
Ibarra said that when good ideas are brought to the table, “everybody forgets whether you’re a Republican or whether you’re a Democrat. You can be tough without being mean, and that’s just what I’ll intend to do.”