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Washington Township — President Donald Trump’s unexpected embrace of a half-billion dollar Soo Locks modernization project has given new momentum to a three-decade effort to update the aging freight passage infrastructure in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Speaking to a capacity crowd Saturday night during a campaign-style rally Total Sports Park in Washington Township, the first-term Republican promised to “fix” the aging locks after discussing the project with Michigan lawmakers on his way to the venue.

“The Soo Locks are going to hell,” Trump told enthusiastic supporters who had spent hours in line to see him speak. “You know that, right? And we’re going to get them fixed up.”

Michigan’s congressional delegation has long pushed for federal funding to build a new 1,200-foot-long lock to mirror the 49-year-old Poe Lock, which handles large freighters carrying iron ore. Congress authorized the project in 1986 but it has repeatedly stalled amid scrutiny by the Army Corps of Engineers.

“For the first time, we have the president’s attention,” said Jim Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers Association. “It’s a big deal ... I’ve literally been fighting the Army Corps of Engineers for over 10 years on their flawed calculus and their flawed assumptions.”

Replacement advocates contend a Poe Lock failure could have catastrophic impacts on the economy in Michigan and other states rely on steel produced from iron ore that passes through the locks, which are located on the St. Mary’s River between Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the Canadian province of Ontario.

Trump said Saturday night he would immediately talk to the Army Corps of Engineers in an attempt to jumpstart the process.

“Can I call on a Sunday, is that okay?” the president joked. “It would be nice to fix it. After spending all that money in the Middle East, we can’t fix a lock?”

It would cost between $582 million and $626 million to construct the new lock, according to the report prepared for Treasury Department by a team of independent infrastructure experts. They project an economic benefit of between $582 and $1.74 billion.

Republican U.S. Reps. Jack Bergman of Watersmeet, Paul Mitchell of Dryden and John Moolenaar of Midland pitched Trump on the Soo Locks modernization project during the drive from Selfridge Air Force Base in Harrison Township, where Air Force One had landed.

Moolenaar told The Detroit News that he and Bergman met Trump on the tarmac at Selfridge, while Mitchell rode on Air Force One with the president from Washington, D.C.

“It’s a huge priority for our state,” Moolenaar said of the Soo Locks. “Our economy and this country really needs this.”

The lawmakers talked to the president about the need for the Army Corps of Engineers to complete a new cost-benefit analysis of the project which is needed before the corps. could spend any unallocated funds or congress could appropriate new dollars

“He was very engaged,” Moolenaar said about Trump.

“He’s providing a vision for how this fits with infrastructure priorities,” he said, adding that the congressional delegation has been working in a bipartisan manner to get the lock built. “We’re working on a number of fronts. Now we really have the chance to move the ball forward.”

Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters have helped push for Soo Locks modernization project, and GOP Gov. Rick Snyder has urged the Obama and Trump administrations to fully fund a new Soo shipping lock to avert a “cascading collapse” of the U.S. economy.

Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said Sunday the administration is “pleased the president is getting behind Gov. Snyder’s long-time commitment to this vital improvement and his request for the federal government to get something done ASAP.”

The Soo Locks project never appeared to be a priority for former President Barack Obama, according to Weakley, who criticized past cost-benefit calculations of the project that failed to account for the potential economic impact of a Poe Lock failure.

“Having the president of the United States say this is an important project might have some swamp-clearing impact on those bureaucrats within the Army Corps of Engineers who are resistant to the project,” Weakely said.

More than 60 percent of current U.S. and Canadian ships are restricted by size to using the Poe Lock, according to the 2017 Treasury Department report. Closures of the aging lock are expected to increase in coming years, jeopardizing transportation of more than 40 million tons of iron ore and coal to manufacturers along the Great Lakes.

Trump has talked about improving America’s infrastructure with a $1 trillion mixture of private and government money, but a funding proposal hasn’t emerged or gained steam in Congress.

Thousands of Trump supporters packed the sports complex Saturday night and many more were left outside in Washington Township, where Trump chose to speak the same night as the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in Washington, D.C.

The president repeatedly bemoaned the size of the venue, suggesting he could have filled the complex five times over. But “I’d rather be in Washington, Michigan, than Washington, D.C., that I can tell you,” he said to applause.

Trump blasted critics and touted his accomplishments during his first 15 months in office, urging supporters to vote Republican in 2018 while he laid the ground work for his own 2020 re-election campaign.

“This is our moment,” Trump said to applause. “We’ve never had a moment like this. The economy is roaring. Our military is strong and getting stronger.”

The rally was Trump’s first return trip to Macomb County since a Nov. 6, 2016, campaign visit to the Freedom Hill amphitheater in Sterling Heights.

Democrats rallied against him at UAW Local 400 in nearby Shelby Township as part of a teach-in event ahead of November elections they hope will see a “blue wave” of victories and help the party retake control of Congress and statewide offices in Michigan.

Macomb helped tip the state to Trump in 2016, when he became the first Republican presidential candidate to win Michigan since 1988. The New York businessman’s 10,704-vote win over Democrat Hillary Clinton was the narrowest in Michigan history, at 0.27 percentage points, but he took Macomb County by a comfortable 12-percentage-point margin.

Trump revisited his Michigan win and invited 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski on stage. The president echoed previous calls for trade fairness that helped him win over blue-collar workers two years ago.

“For too long, the loyalty of Michigan workers was repaid with pure and simple betrayal,” he told the crowd, citing “disastrous” international trade pacts and trade deficits.

Trump called farmers “great patriots” but acknowledged there “could be a little sting for a while” as China threatens heavy taxes on agricultural imports in response to U.S. tariffs.

But the short-term pain associated with tariffs will yield long-term gains and protect hundreds of billions of dollars in intellectual property of the United States, he said. “We’ve got to open up these markets; it’s not fair,” he said.

Trump emphasized his friendship with China but said President Xi Jinping was interested in the prosperity of China, not the United States. He said a car shipped from China to the U.S. incurs a 2.5 percent tax, while vehicles shipped from the U.S. to China are slapped with a 25 percent tariff.

“I don’t blame the heads of these countries for taking advantage of us,” Trump said. “I blame past presidents and past leaders.”

Trump said farmers may feel the pinch of a trade war more than others, but promised that he would make it possible for farms to bring in guest workers through temporary visa programs.

“But then they have to go out,” he said.

Trump said he’s delivered on his promise made two years ago in Macomb County to bring vehicle production back to Michigan through deregulation and tax cuts.

He focused in particular on Fiat Chrysler Automotive’s intention to move production of its heavy-duty Ram trucks from Mexico back to Michigan by 2020.

“Here in Michigan, Chrysler handed out $2,000 bonuses to 60,000 workers and announced plans for a $1 billion investment in Warren creating a minimum of 2,500 jobs,” Trump said.

“We’re giving them incentive to stay and to pay our people,” he added.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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