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Could Soo Locks funds be diverted to build Trump's wall?

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 — The White House has considered diverting money for Army Corps of Engineers projects to build a border wall, but Michigan lawmakers are split on whether projects such as the Soo Locks upgrade could be among those tapped.

The White House recently asked the Pentagon to identify civil works projects whose funding could be redirected to the wall if President Donald Trump uses his authority to do so under an emergency declaration.

Trump has repeatedly said he'll use emergency powers if he and Democrats don't reach a deal to fund the wall, though the president seems to have put the idea on hold for now.

"I’m not looking to call a national emergency. This is so simple, you shouldn’t have to," Trump said Monday. 

Nevertheless, Michigan's Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters are seeking assurances from the Army Corps on whether officials are considering reallocating funding away from the Soo Locks or "other agency projects critical to the safety and well-being of Michigan and the entire Great Lakes."

"It is imperative that no funding be diverted from the operations and maintenance of the Soo Locks or the initial work necessary to construct a new (large) lock," the senators wrote to the assistant secretary of the Army, stressing the economic impact of an unplanned outage.

"Likewise, it is critical that no funds be diverted from projects essential to Great Lakes navigation and public safety."

But Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, on Tuesday sought to minimize concerns that funds for the Soo Locks are in jeopardy. 

“It is a false choice to say funding for the Soo Locks is at risk," said Mooleaar, who supports Trump's border wall and sits on the House Appropriations Committee.

"We can build the Soo Locks and protect our border. In fact, we passed a law last year that I voted for that protects the Soo Locks funding from being redirected."

Moolenaar was referring to legislative language that prohibits the secretary of the Army for Civil Works from deviating from the list of new construction starts for 2019 after it’s been submitted to Congress. 

Trump in October signed the bill from Congress authorizing funding for the long-planned shipping lock in Sault Ste. Marie that links Lake Huron and Lake Superior. 

Plans call for construction of a second large lock — estimated at $1 billion — which lawmakers and shipping interests argue is needed in the case of an outage of the only other large lock at the complex. 

The new 1,200-foot-long lock would mirror the 50-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 Soo project has seen new momentum in the last year, including catching the attention of Trump, who promised to "fix" the locks during an April visit to Macomb County. 

And last month state and federal officials signed an agreement committing $52 million in state funds to the Soo Locks upgrade, potentially accelerating the project's completion by almost a year. 

The Army Corps referred to the Pentagon questions about cancelling or delaying projects in the case of a national emergency. 

"The Department of Defense is reviewing available authorities and funding mechanisms to identify options to enable border barrier construction," Capt. Bill Speaks, a U.S. Army spokesman, said by email.

"As there has not been such a declaration made, it would be inappropriate to comment further on those efforts."