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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.