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Sault Ste. Marie— Deep in the river connecting Lake Superior and Lake Huron, construction has begun on a long-awaited project in the Soo Locks that will accommodate thousands of freighters traveling the Great Lakes Navigation System.

Workers built two dams and drilled through bedrock to add another lock to the Soo Locks, which pass about 4,000 vessels carrying nearly 80 million tons of cargo every shipping season.

The new $580 million lock would be just as large as the Poe Lock — the only lock in Sault Ste. Marie that is capable of allowing passage of the largest vessels, which carry tons of raw materials to the steel, power and construction industries supporting the nation's economy.

Five years have passed since the first stage of building, which took nearly a year and cost $17 million — but that has been the only construction on the new lock authorized by Congress three decades ago.

Pressure has since been mounting from lawmakers and those in the shipping industry to find funding to finish construction on the additional lock. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has shown that it is not economically justified, though a soon-to-be released report from U.S Department of Homeland Security is expected to demonstrate the opposite.

For now, advocates say a new lock is needed to avert any economic crisis if the 47-year-old Poe Lock became inoperable. If that were to happen, costs to the economy could escalate to upwards of $160 million, including some that are immeasurable.

"If the Poe Lock goes down, there is a large majority of the U.S. fleet that won't be able to go through the Soo Locks," said Mark Barker, president of the Cleveland-based Interlake Steamship Company, the largest privately held vessel operator in the nation. "It is imperative we have a redundant system to ensure we can maintain this critical supply system we have on the Great Lakes for the country's manufacturing sector."

The Soo Locks are part of the Great Lakes' 1,600-mile-deep water navigation system connecting channels from Duluth, Minnesota, to Ogdensburg, New York. They are on the St. Marys River, at the river's falls, in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The city by the same name in Canada also has a lock at the river's falls but it is small and used only for recreational boats.

There are four parallel locks in the Soo Locks but only two are currently in operation: the Poe Lock, used by vessels up to 1,100 feet in length and 105 feet in width, and the MacArthur Lock, used by tour and recreational boats and smaller freighters. The Davis Lock is rarely used and Sabin Lock, which would be the site of the new Poe-sized lock, is decommissioned.

The 42-week shipping season generally begins in March, and ends in January, with vessels transporting iron ore, coal and other commodities from mines in Minnesota and northern Michigan. But iron ore and taconite are the primary commodities, supplied to steel mills along the Great Lakes to produce steel for automakers and other industries.

Of the 77.5 million net tons of freight that were recorded in 2014, 70 percent was restricted to the Poe Lock because of the size of the vessel carrying it.

A report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers showed that the if the Poe Lock were to shut down for 30 days, it could have an economic impact of $160 million.

The amount of commodities traveling through the lock with no backup alternative is why Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, recently began lobbying federal officials to fund the new lock to mitigate any unforeseen closures that would disrupt shipping in one of the largest economies in the world.

"There is a great sense of urgency to get this done," said Stabenow, co-chair of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force. "We are in a global economy. We are shipping in and out of those locks all the time. We cannot rely on just one lock that has 70 percent of the traffic going through it."

Sen. Gary Peters, who is also on the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, has joined Stabenow in trying to get the project funded.

"This is really critical," said Peters, D-Bloomfield Township. "We are really concerned we have just the one lock. We need to have two locks. It is so apparent for the economy, but also for the entire country."

Sault Ste. Marie City Manager Oliver Turner is hoping the Poe Lock gets built because of the benefits to the region.

"It would help draw attention to the community," Turner said. "We're a tourist-based community. It would give people another reason to stay."

While minimal work has been done on the new lock, further construction has been impeded partly by a 2004 economic analysis by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The report showed the new lock would cost more than the benefits, and not justified economically.

"To meet administration policy, a project has to (have benefits exceeding costs) to be budgetable," said Kevin Sprague, an engineer with the Army Corps based in Sault Ste. Marie.

But that analysis included some assumptions that are very concerning, Sprague said. Chief among them: If the Poe Lock were out of service, commodities could be delivered by rail and or truck. But Sprague said that is not the case with iron ore, which must be delivered by ship.

Because of the problems with that analysis, federal funding is being secured by lawmakers to re-evaluate it. "We think that will bring the benefit-cost ratio much higher," Sprague said.

Meanwhile, a broader report from the Department of Homeland Security is in draft form, and was overviewed last month at a meeting of the Great Lakes governors and premiers from the U.S. and Canada.

Barker, who has a draft copy of the report but declined to release it, said it could be what is needed to finally kick-start the project.

He summarized Homeland Security's conclusion of the Poe Lock shutting down without a backup this way: "It is a critical piece of infrastructure for moving commerce. The country would go into a serious recession without it."

Win a Great Lakes voyage

Want to win a trip on a Great Lakes Freighter?

The Soo Locks Visitor Center Association is raffling off a round-trip for four people aboard an interlake steamship vessel, during the summer of 2016.

Drawing will be held on Sept. 8 at the Soo Locks Visitors Center.

Second pride is an overnight stay at Whitefish Point, and third prize is overnight stay at Ramada Plaza Ojibway Hotel.

Tickets cost $10 each or 3 for $25.

Contact the Sault Ste. Marie Convention and Visitors Bureau at (906) 632-3366 or email: info@saultstemarie.com.

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