Army Corps lists Soo Locks project as a priority for 2019

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.

Design and other work on a new $1 billion Soo Lock is expected to move forward next year after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this week allocated an initial $32 million toward the project.

Lawmakers and shipping representatives applauded the move as a first step, though some in Congress had pushed for a greater, $74 million allocation. 

"This is the moment we have been waiting for more than 30 years," said Jim Weakley, president of Lake Carriers’ Association, which represents U.S.-flag vessels on the Great Lakes. 

"It is a great day for Michigan, the Great Lakes region and the entire nation. We are elated."

A replacement lock was first authorized by Congress in 1986 but had been stalled for decades.

The Soo Locks are essential to commerce and national security.

The new 1,200-foot-long lock would mirror the 49-year-old Poe lock, which is the only one of the four shipping locks at Sault Ste. Marie that can handle the largest freighters carrying 89 percent of the cargo through the corridor. 

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

The project gained traction this year after the Army Corps released a new economic analysis in June that allowed the new lock to compete for construction funding. The Soo also gained the attention of President Donald Trump, who promised to "fix" the locks after being lobbied by three Michigan Republican lawmakers during an April visit to Macomb County.

"We have seen more movement on this project in the past year than anyone saw in the previous 20 years," Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said in a statement. 

"Thanks to Gov. Snyder, President Trump, and our partners in the state and federal legislatures, we are finally making significant headway on this vital project. Now we need to do all we can at all levels to keep accelerating this momentum.” 

Kevin Sprague, area engineer for the Soo Locks, looks over a satellite image of the St. Mary's River and the locks.

The process of building the replacement lock in Sault Ste. Marie is expected to take seven to 10 years, requiring additional funds appropriated each year, after Congress reauthorized the project this fall.

The Army Corps said initial work planned to support the new lock would include deepening the upstream channel to accommodate modern vessels.

“Money added by Congress and the Corps over the last decade has been used for rehabilitation of the existing locks and for some preliminary construction for the new lock, but this is the first time the Corps has funded construction on its own,” Weakley said.

Great Lakes lawmakers had requested well over $32 million be allocated for the new lock in 2019, in addition to the funds necessary to maintain and operate the locks. 

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. 

Twenty-eight House members, including Michigan's delegation, sent a letter in October, also requesting $74 million for fiscal 2019.

Weakley suggested this week that the $32 million from the Army Corps could be combined with another $52 million committed by Gov. Rick Snyder to cut construction time by a year and save taxpayers $30 million on the overall cost.

Snyder this week thanked the Army Corps for maintaining the Soo Locks as a priority.

“Now, we need to continue working with the Corps to use Michigan’s $52 million commitment to its fullest potential,” Snyder said in a statement.

“We also need to make sure Congress continues to see this work as essential to protecting our nation’s economy and fully funds the construction of a new lock.”

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 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.

The Canadian cutter Samuel Risley ties up in the Poe Lock in Sault Ste. Marie in this Wednesday, March 21, 2018 file photo.

The Soo project seemed to get a boost from Trump's April trip to Michigan, when GOP Reps. Jack Bergman, Paul Mitchell and John Moolenaar told the president of the stalled upgrade.

"The Soo Locks are going to hell," Trump later told a crowd in Macomb Township. "And we're going to get them fixed up."

Moolenaar of Midland this week called the Army Corps' announcement "real progress."

"We only have one lock right now and it's 50 years old, so starting this process sooner is vital to ensuring we have a second lock to support the millions of American jobs that depend on the iron ore that goes through the Soo each year," Moolenaar said. 

Mitchell of Dryden said the Soo Locks complex is "one giant step closer to breaking ground on the new construction it needs."

"I will continue to do everything and anything I can in Congress to finalize this project, and protect our district, Michigan, and our nation from economic risk," Mitchell said in a statement.