State deal with Army Corps could speed Soo Locks work

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
A new shipping lock in Sault Ste. Marie was first authorized by Congress in 1986 but was then stalled for decades.

State and federal officials say they have inked an agreement that commits $52 million in state funds to the $1 billion Soo Locks upgrade, potentially accelerating the project's completion by almost a year and saving $30 million.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the Detroit District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Wednesday a memorandum of agreement that officially designates the state funds to the long-planned improvement of the shipping lock complex in Sault Ste. Marie in the Upper Peninsula. 

Officials said the state's contribution will be put toward design work and construction activities, including deepening the upstream channel to accommodate modern vessels. 

Lt. Col. Greg Turner, district engineer for the Army Corps' Detroit District, said the state funds will be combined with $32 million in federal money to execute the entire upstream channel deepening, "buying down risk by moving the project completion ahead nearly a full year and saving an additional $30 million."

"The state of Michigan's contribution demonstrates their commitment to the construction of the new Soo Lock and highlights the importance of the project to the state and the nation," Turner said in a statement. 

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 Soo Locks are essential to our economy and national security. The time is long overdue for construction to begin on the new lock,” Snyder said in a statement. 

“I’m pleased that the work is finally getting underway and hope that Congress quickly provides the rest of the funds needed to complete the project.”

Snyder first pledged $50 million from Michigan's budget surplus to the Soo Locks project in May during the annual Mackinac Policy Conference. He said he's also called other Great Lakes states to secure another $150 million for the project. 

The process of building the replacement lock is expected to take seven to 10 years, requiring additional federal funds appropriated each year.

A replacement lock in the Soo was first authorized by Congress in 1986 but then stalled for decades. Congress reauthorized the project this fall at a cost estimate of $922 million. 

The project gained traction earlier 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 Locks also caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who promised to "fix" the locks after hearing from three Republican lawmakers from Michigan during an April visit to Macomb County.

The Army Corps has allocated nearly $32.4 million in 2019 as part of the first phase of construction, spokeswoman Lynn Rose said last month. 

Rose said the money would be used to deepen the upstream channel to the Davis and Sabin locks to the depth needed for the project.

The new lock, which will be constructed in the place of the 23-foot-deep Davis/Sabin locks, will match the depth of the Poe lock's 32 feet in depth.