Lawmakers urge expedited study of Soo Locks

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Most of Michigan's congressional delegation signed a bipartisan letter Wednesday urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expedite its study of upgrading vital shipping locks on the river connecting Lakes Huron and Superior.

Only one of the four aging locks in Sault Ste. Marie is large enough to handle ships that carry 70 percent of the cargo through the corridor. For years, the delegation and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder have been pushing to replace two outdated locks with a new one capable of handling the largest freighters.

According to the lawmakers, the Army Corps is re-evaluating its original economic analysis of constructing a new shipping passageway at the Soo Locks complex due to “erroneous assumptions” in its initial study that left the project unable to compete for federal funding.

The new study, expected by December, is reportedly considering a pulley-conveyer belt system around the Soo Locks as an alternative to the typically cost-efficient transport of commodities by vessel.

“We write to ensure that USACE engages stakeholders and considers appropriate transportation alternatives to ensure an accurate benefit-cost ratio analysis for the project, which is critically important to our states and the entire country,” wrote the lawmakers, led by Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga of Zeeland, who co-chair the Senate and House Great Lakes Task Forces, respectively.

The lawmakers urged the Army Corps to conduct the Soo Locks re-evaluation “in a manner that is consistent with other navigation lock and dam project evaluations regarding alternate transportation modes, and that every step is taken to expedite the completion of this critically important analysis.”

A January report commissioned by the U.S. Treasury found that spending $600 million to construct a new lock at the facility could provide an economic benefit of up to $1.7 billion. The report designated the Soo Locks modernization plan as one of 40 infrastructure projects “of major economic significance” to the nation.

Through the National Governors Association, Snyder has asked the Trump administration to fully fund a replacement for the Davis and Sabin locks, which are nearly 100 years old and no longer in use. The Soo Locks transport roughly 80 million tons of raw goods and materials a year, including iron ore.

Having another 1,200-foot-long lock — built on the site of the existing Davis and Sabin locks — would allow for better maintenance and keep shipping traffic moving when the 1,200-foot-long Poe lock needs repairs.

The delegation highlighted a study by the Department of Homeland Security in October 2015 that concluded the Poe lock is a weak link in the North American industrial economy and that a six-month closure of the lock could plunge the U.S. economy into recession. After that analysis, the Corps agreed to re-evaluate its benefit-cost analysis of upgrading the Soo Locks.

In their letter, the lawmakers urged the Corps to calculate the rate of savings through other modes of transportation as has historically been done for other lock and dam projects. They indicated that it would mean considering alternate transportation via rail or truck, rather than transporting commodities around the Soo Lock falls using a conveyer belt system.

The 10 other delegation members who signed the letter are members of the Senate or House Great Lakes Task Force: Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Republican Reps. Jack Bergman of Watersmeet, Fred Upton of St. Joseph, Tim Walberg of Tipton, Dave Trott of Birmingham and Paul Mitchell of Dryden as well as Democratic Reps. Sander Levin of Royal Oak, Dan Kildee of Flint Township, Debbie Dingell of Dearborn, and Brenda Lawrence of Southfield.

(202) 662-8736