Funding the future

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the aging Soo Locks and what will be needed to undertake any new construction.

The locks were built between 1896 and 1943 and last upgraded in 1968. By now, most people, especially those in the shipping industry, have realized that to sustain the current economic climate, some upgrades must be made.

Each year about 10,000 ships pass through the locks, carrying with them millions of tons of iron ore, coal, grain, and other cargo. Because only one of the four current locks can accommodate the size of the larger freighters, if there were to be a failure, it would be catastrophic for the state and national economies.

This places the burden of millions of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in commerce on one single lock. If a failure were to occur, it would impact an estimated 22 percent of the state’s workforce. A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security confirmed that a shutdown or failure would prove disastrous ― and as the locks continue to age, the probability of failure grows.

The plan is to build a new “super lock” that would replace the current Davis and Sabin locks, though the project has long been delayed due to a lack of federal funding.

A recent study released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers significantly improved the previous benefit-cost ratio for building a new lock, and as a result, the issue continues to gain attention. The president has routinely shown interest in this project, and in order to leverage federal funds for the project, Michigan has committed more than $50 million and is encouraging other states to make similar commitments.

On Nov. 21, the Army Corps of Engineers submitted its 2019 work plan to Congress that included more than $32 million as an initial outlay for design and construction of the super lock.

The funds will be used to initiate deepening of the upstream approach channel and to complete the design of the lock. Deepening the upstream approach channel is the first big step in construction of the lock. Depending on the level and consistency with which the project is funded, the nearly $1 billion undertaking could be completed in as few as seven years.

Multiple Great Lakes states have approved resolutions urging the federal government to appropriate the necessary funds to make the upgrades, and it is good to see action being taken. State and federal officials have done a tremendous job at keeping this issue at the forefront — the locks have received more attention in the last 12 months than in the previous 20 years.

The Soo Locks are vital to the national economy and to several state and local economies throughout the Midwest. The recent announcement of federal funding is another step closer to getting the project done. I look forward to future discussions with legislative leaders, the governor-elect’s administration and our federal counterparts on how we can bring this project to fruition.

Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, represents the 37th state Senate District, which includes Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Chippewa, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Luce and Mackinac counties.