House panel to vote on $75M for Soo Locks upgrade

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
In this file photo, the Great Lakes Trader and the tug Joyce L. VanEnkevort exits the Poe Lock at the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie.

Washington — A U.S. House Appropriations subcommittee has included $75.3 million toward building a new Soo Lock in legislation that the full committee could vote on as early as Tuesday. 

Lawmakers this week included the $75 million as part of construction funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the same level as requested in President Donald Trump's budget proposal in March.

If Congress approves the project's spending for next year, it would keep the $1 billion project on track for completion seven to 10 years from whenever construction starts, the Army Corps has said. 

A replacement lock in Sault Ste. Marie was first authorized by Congress in 1986; however, the project was held up for decades until Trump took an interest during an April 2018 trip to Michigan, where he was lobbied by three House members, including Reps. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, and Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet. 

“Construction of a new lock at the Soo Locks is funded in legislation for the first time in decades," said Moolenaar, who as a member of the Appropriations Committee pressed for the appropriation to be included.

"This will create jobs and help shipping on the Great Lakes." 

Bergman called the legislation a "monumental next step" for the construction of a new lock. He wrote to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development last month with 30 colleagues, urging that the funding be included. 

"This signals to the entire House of Representatives just how important the Soo Locks project is not only for Michigan’s First District but also our entire nation,” he said in a statement.

The Appropriations Committee is also set to consider legislation next week that includes $305 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Moolenaar's office said. 

As in previous years, Trump's budget proposal had slashed funding for the cleanup program, but he backed off those plans during a March campaign rally in Grand Rapids after a lobbying effort by Michigan lawmakers, including Moolenaar and Bergman. 

Congress was expected to restore the funding, as it has in previous years. 

The shipping lock complex on the St. Mary's River in the Upper Peninsula 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 corps' Detroit District has said the $75 million for 2020 would be sufficient to complete the upstream channel deepening to accommodate modern vessels ($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.

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