Army Corps of Engineers budgets $75 million toward Soo Locks upgrade

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
The 664-foot freighter Manitoulin is the last ship through Michigan's Soo Locks before they closed for winter. The ship approached the locks  around 9 p.m. Tuesday, passing through before the locks' midnight Jan. 15 deadline.

Washington — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has proposed spending over $75.3 million toward upgrading the Soo Locks next year — a significant investment toward the project's long-awaited construction. 

The Army Corps proposed the funding Tuesday as part of President Donald Trump's request for the budget year starting Oct. 1. 

If Congress appropriated the requested $75.3 million for the project next fiscal year, it would keep the project on track for completion seven to 10 years from whenever construction starts, said Lt. Col. Greg Turner, district engineer for the Army Corps' Detroit District.

"It is a critical time for investing in our nation’s infrastructure," Turner said. 

A replacement lock in Sault Ste. Marie was first authorized by Congress in 1986 but had been stalled for decades until Trump took an interest following an April 2018 trip to Michigan and lobbying by three Republican lawmakers.

"I'm thankful President Trump has followed through on his promise to build a new lock," Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, said in a statement. 

"The work doesn’t end here; I will continue working with my colleagues in the House and Senate, the Trump administration, and the Army Corps of Engineers to keep the momentum going on construction of the new Lock."

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said dedicating the $75 million to the project is a "good first step." 

“There’s a lot of work ahead to ensure this project is finished," Peters said.

"I am committed to continuing to partner with my colleagues in the Michigan congressional delegation and the administration to advance this project, because the Soo Locks are critical not only to Michigan’s economy but to our entire country.”

The lock complex on the St. Mary's River connects Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes.

Plans call for a new 1,200-foot-long lock to mirror the 49-year-old Poe lock, which is the only one of the four shipping locks that can handle the largest freighters carrying 89 percent of the cargo through the corridor. 

A new lock would provide redundancy, so cargo could keep moving in the case of an unexpected outage of the Poe.

The replacement lock project gained traction last year after the Army Corps released a new economic analysis that allowed the new lock to finally compete for construction funding. 

The Army Corps last fall allocated an initial $32 million toward the project for design and some pre-construction work,including deepening the upstream channel to accommodate modern vessels.

The Detroit District said the $75 million for 2020, if appropriated, would be sufficient to complete the channel deepening ($4.95 million), initiate construction of the upstream approach walls ($62 million) and continue design of the lock chamber ($8.355 million). 

Work on the approach walls is intended to stabilize the existing approach walls to allow for modern vessels to tie up and wait their turn to pass through the new lock, according to the Army Corps.

Design for the approach walls is expected to be complete in late 2019, and the construction contract awarded in summer of 2020. 

The process of building the lock is expected to require additional funds appropriated each year of construction, after Congress reauthorized the project last fall.

A group of senators on the Great Lakes Task Force had asked the Army Corps in September to include $74 million in its fiscal 2019 work plan and $92 million for its 2020 budget request for the lock upgrade. 

Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, had both signed the letter. Stabenow co-chairs the task force. 

In December, a group of 40 House members, including Michigan's delegation, also wrote to the head of the White House Office of Budget and Management urging "continued funding" for the Soo Locks project in fiscal 2020.

"This is incredible news for Michigan," said Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland.

"Since Congressman (Jack) Bergman, Congressman (Paul) Mitchell and myself talked to President Trump about the Soo Locks last April, there has been more progress on building a new lock than there has been in decades. This new funding will create jobs and benefit our entire state."

National security experts and economists have warned about the bottleneck that could result from a sustained closure of the Poe lock, crippling the supply chain for steel production and manufacturing across the country.

A report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2015 found no alternative transportation mode exists for getting iron ore from Minnesota mines to steel mills on the lower Great Lakes.

The same study concluded the Poe lock is a weak link in the North American industrial economy, and an unplanned, six-month closure could plunge the U.S. economy into recession, costing up to 11 million jobs.

In August 2015, the smaller MacArthur lock experienced mechanical problems that shuttered it for nearly two weeks, delaying 103 ships a total of 166 hours, among other effects, according to the Army Corps.