Upgrade the Soo Locks

Senator Wayne Schmidt

Senator Wayne Schmidt

Nearly 80 percent of all Great Lakes shipping traffic for one of the most important elements needed to fuel our economy — iron ore — passes through upper Michigan’s Soo Locks. Each year about 10,000 ships sail through the locks, carrying 80 million tons of iron ore, coal, grain, and other cargo. Tens of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in commerce rely on this single point.

Despite the locks’ economic vitality to the state, region and global economies, the most important and depended-upon lock faces an uncertain future that threatens both our economy and security.

If you think back to 1968 when the current Poe Lock went into service and consider how much our society has advanced over the past 47 years, and then consider that this most important Great Lakes maritime crossing has not been upgraded during that time, you can imagine why so many have come forward to call on the federal government to get to work and upgrade the Soo Locks.

I recently had the opportunity to tour the Soo Locks and witness numerous freighters make the 28-foot transition between the upper and lower locks. These 1,000-foot-long ships are expertly packed to the gills to maximize efficiency when transporting goods. As the ships lined up to take their turns passing through the gates, it was easy to visualize the very real threat that exists if the Poe Lock were to go down. There is literally no other way for these massive ships to cross. Estimates suggest that a prolonged 30-day shutdown of this single lock would result in the loss of $160 million. The Lake Carriers’ Association predicts such a shutdown would affect Michigan’s economy so deeply that more than 22 percent of the state’s workers would become unemployed.

Given all of this, the question arises: Why haven’t the Soo Locks been upgraded?

In 1986, the Congress authorized construction of a new lock that would be built on the site of the current 100-plus-year-old Sabin and Davis Locks. The proposed new lock would run tandem to and would be the same size as the Poe Lock. In 2009, funds were provided for preparatory work that built coffer dams at the ends of the Sabin Lock and to dredge the approach channels to the necessary 28.5-foot depth.

However, nothing has been done since to move forward with building a new, modern lock.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for running the locks, formally requested the federal government to fund preparation of an Economic Reevaluation Report. This report would examine the economic benefits and costs of replacing the Davis and Sabin locks with a lock similar to the current Poe Lock, and would be an important next step.

Elected officials have joined to petition the president, Congress, and the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to support plans to upgrade the Soo Locks. Earlier this month at a rare joint hearing of the state Senate Commerce, Transportation, and Economic Development and International Investment committees, held in Sault Ste. Marie, a bipartisan group of colleagues and I adopted Senate Resolution 105 to encourage the federal government to support plans to upgrade the locks. This week, the Michigan Senate unanimously adopted the resolution as well.

In today’s modern age, it is unacceptable that so much relies on so little when it comes to moving economically vital materials and supplies through the Great Lakes. A 21st century Michigan economy demands a modern Soo Locks. The economy, businesses and jobs all rely heavily on the Soo Locks, and leaders in Washington, D.C. must act to modernize the locks to continue Michigan’s positive economic momentum.

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Senate committees adopt resolution, urge U.S. to upgrade Soo Locks

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – At a rare joint hearing of the state Senate Commerce, Transportation, and Economic Development and International Investment committees on Monday, legislators adopted Senate Resolution 105 to encourage the federal government to support plans to upgrade the Soo Locks and approve a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reprogramming request to fund an Economic Reevaluation Report for replacing the Davis and Sabin locks.

Citing the locks’ vital importance to Michigan’s, the U.S.’s and Canada’s economies, resolution sponsor Sen. Wayne Schmidt said modernizing the locks is needed now more than ever.

“A 21st century Michigan economy demands a modern Soo Locks,” said Commerce Committee Chairman Schmidt, R-Traverse City. “Despite the rapid transformation and growth of our economy, the Soo Locks have not kept up with the times. The economy, businesses and jobs all rely heavily on the Soo Locks, and we urge leaders in Washington, D.C. to act to modernize the locks to continue the positive economic momentum.”

SR 105 highlights the necessity to upgrade the locks, particularly the smallest, 100-year-old Davis and Sabin locks. Only one of the four Soo Locks is currently large enough to accommodate the modern vessels that commonly traverse the Great Lakes. Seventy percent of cargo is carried on the large ships that can only pass through the Poe Lock. The remaining cargo goes through the smaller MacArthur Lock, while the Davis and Sabin locks are rarely used.

Approximately 10,000 vessels travel through the locks annually, carrying 80 million tons of iron ore, coal, grain, and other cargo. Nearly 80 percent of domestic iron ore, the primary material used to manufacture steel, travels from mines in the Upper Peninsula and neighboring states through the Soo Locks.

“It is unacceptable that, in 2015, so much relies on so little when it comes to moving vital materials and supplies through the Great Lakes that are needed to support thousands of jobs,” said Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba. “With effectively only one useable lock, we are putting serious strain on the system, and are in a vulnerable position that threatens both the economy and the security of our state and nation. The federal government must act to upgrade this integral part of our transportation system and ensure the long term health and safety of the economy.”

Legislators adopted the resolution during the joint hearing, held at the Lake Superior State University Cisler Center. Committee members also heard testimony from industry representatives, including from Lake Carriers’ Association Environmental and Regulatory Affairs Director Tom Rayburn.

“The Great Lakes Navigation System has evolved into the most economically efficient and environmentally friendly way to transport ore, stone, coal, salt and grain,” Rayburn said. “However, the Soo Locks is also the greatest weakness to the system as a potential single point of failure. The current Poe Lock is the only lock that can handle the 13-thousand-foot ships and 19 other U.S.-flag vessels that, combined, represent approximately 70 percent of the country’s capacity on the lakes. In a worst case scenario, 32 U.S.-flag ships would be trapped above and below the locks. Three-quarters of all integrated steel production would cease within two to six weeks. This would impact nearly 11 million U.S. jobs and potentially increase Michigan’s unemployment to 22.5 percent.

“A new lock will provide the secure, redundant, and reliable Soo Lock system vital to Michigan, other Great Lakes states, and the nation. Senate Resolution 105 is critical to moving the process forward.”

The Army Corps study would investigate the possibility of replacing the Davis and Sabin locks with a new, larger lock that can run alongside the Poe Lock. Estimates indicate such a project could cost at least $600 million, but with a new, modern lock in place, shipping between Lakes Huron and Michigan could carry on uninterrupted in the event one lock were to go down. Without a second large lock, presently an unscheduled outage of the Poe Lock could result in the loss of more than $5 million per day of an outage.

“The Soo Locks are a major factor to not only Michigan’s economy but also to our state’s number one trade partner, Canada, and to the rest of the world,” said Economic Development and International Investment Committee Chairman Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth. “If Michigan wants its remarkable economic turnaround to continue, we need to increase access to both import and export opportunities, and a modernized Soo Locks is essential to achieving those goals and securing our economic future.”

SR 105 now goes before the full Senate for consideration.

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Photo Caption: Members of the Senate Commerce, Transportation, and Economic Development and International Investment committees on hear testimony on Senate Resolution 105 at a joint committee hearing at Lake Superior State University on Monday, Nov. 2. The resolution encourages the federal government to support plans to upgrade the Soo Locks.

Editor’s Note: Click the above photo for a print-quality version of the image.