$75M for Soo Locks nears finish line

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Michigan lawmakers say they are confident the federal government will move ahead with a $75 million spending plan for the Soo Locks modernization project despite uncertainty over whether Congress will complete budgets by the end of the fiscal year.

“These end of September negotiations can be complicated, but we cannot have a shutdown,” U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, said Friday after leading a tour of the locks that enable ships to pass between Lake Superior and Lake Huron in Sault Ste. Marie.

Congressman John Moolenaar and Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur with Captain Paul Berger on board the frieghter Mesabi Miner while it is in the Poe Lock in Sault Ste Marie on Thursday, August 22, 2019.

“My hope is that with the strong bipartisan support in Congress, as well as the president’s leadership, we will be able to make sure this funding goes through.”

The construction funding, part of a larger plan to eventually build a second lock capable of handling the Great Lakes’ largest freighters, cleared the Democratic-led House in June but the Republican-controlled Senate has not yet approved any budgets under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters of Michigan, both Democrats, have long pushed for Soo Locks funding and are working to help see it across the finish line in the Republican-led upper chamber. It's possible Congress may extend negotiations past the end of September by approving a temporary continuation budget.

While the timing of passage is uncertain, Stabenow's aides on Friday told The Detroit News they expect any eventual fiscal year 2020 government spending plan will include the Soo Locks funding.

President Donald Trump included the $75 million in his proposed budget after spontaneously endorsing the larger modernization project last year in a visit to Macomb County. He had been lobbied by Moolenaar and three other House Republicans on the ride to the rally.

Long-term plans call for construction of 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% of the cargo through the corridor. The total project is projected to cost upward of $922 million over seven to 10 years.

Moolenaar toured the Soo Locks on Friday with Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat who chairs the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, and Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Semonite “mentioned his strong support, and how high this ranks as a priority for the Army Corps of Engineers,” Moolenaar said. “He cited different situations where projects have been started in the past and over time they dwindled in their support, and he said this cannot be one of those projects.”

The replacement lock project began to move forward last year after the Army Corps released an economic analysis that allowed the new lock to finally compete for construction funding. Congress last year authorized the spending.

Former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration pumped $52 million into the project to spur federal investment, and new Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has continued to support the Soo Locks, which she toured earlier this month.

The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to use the $75 million in federal money, along with leftover money from the state appropriation, to contract for upstream approach wall construction and continue design of the new lock.

A second lock for larger ships would help move “iron ore that really fuels 90% of the steel manufacturing domestically in this country,” Moolenaar said.

"The automobile industry, the appliance industry, as well as agriculture and energy, all are dependent on this new lock being built. The current one is 50 years old.”

The importance of the Soo Locks was reinforced in the summer of 2015 when the MacArthur Lock, one of two main locks capable of handling large commercial ships, was closed for nearly two weeks because of mechanical problems.

The Soo Locks are essential to commerce and national security.

But the Poe lock remained open and mitigated the slowdown of cargo shipments between the two Great Lakes.

More than 100 ships were delayed a total of 166 hours because of the MacArthur Lock's closure, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said at the time.

Michigan’s delegation has worked on the Soo Locks project in a bipartisan fashion for years but had failed to secure funding amid delayed studies under former President Barack Obama. Seven lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, toured the locks with Snyder in 2017.

“I think all of us in Michigan know the significance and importance of the Soo Locks,” Moolenaar said. “It’s taken time for the other Great Lakes states and industrial parts of our country to understand the supply chain that benefits from the Soo Locks.