Column: Invest in U.P. infrastructure

Tom Watkins

The Upper Peninsula should not be treated with a cold shoulder. Rebuilding the Soo Locks and improving broadband coverage in the U.P. would be a way to show the Yoopers some love, while investing in our collective future.

Why is it that I can get better internet and cell phone connecting access in rural China than I can in some spots in rural Michigan — especially the U.P.?

This thought hit me as I blogged my trip through rural Yunnan Province recently and reflected on my prior train trip from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet and wandering around Urumqi, China where I was as isolated from civilization as a person can be.

Sections of Michigan’s U.P. currently have no or spotty access to broadband internet and cell coverage. This is simply unacceptable.

Last year, the population dropped in 13 of the U.P.’s 15 counties, continuing a slide that began in 2000, according to Census Bureau estimates released in March. The U.P.’s population has fallen 4.4 percent from 2000 through the current 2016 estimate of 303,181. Technology connectivity could help reverse this trend.

While Michigan used to be at the forefront of internet access and use compared to the U.S. average, internet use has stagnated since 2009, putting Michigan at average in 2016, according to a report from Michigan State University.

Gov. Rick Snyder realizes our state is in a state of disrepair when it comes to infrastructure and commissioned the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission. The group’s mission is to prepare Michigan to lead the nation in creating infrastructure systems that will include, at a minimum, innovative technology, sustainable funding solutions, sound economic principles, and a collaborative and integrated asset management and investment approach that will enhance Michiganians’ quality of life and build strong communities for the future.

Last year Northern Michigan University received a $6.5 million state grant by the Michigan Strategic Fund Board to expand its Educational Access Network. The funds were matched by $3.2 million from Northern Michigan University to equip 64 cities and townships in the Upper Peninsula over a two-year period. These creative funding mechanisms are a good start to connect the U.P. to the 21st century knowledge economy— more needs to be done.

President Trump and Congress could start their infrastructure investment initiative right here in the Mitten State.

With the support of the Michigan delegation, including U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, Trump could fund the much needed improvements to the Soo Locks.

This project is just the type of investment needed by a National Infrastructure Bill to improve the nation’s infrastructure, enhance our security and create good, high paying jobs. The funds for the improvements were initially authorized in 1986, but the project has yet to be authorized.

The Locks are a connector for shipping iron, coal, grain and other materials from the shores of Lake Superior to the rest of the country. In 2016, U.S.-flagged Great Lakes freighters moved 83.3 million tons of cargo, according to the Cleveland-based Lake Carriers Association.

Currently, the biggest of the locks — the Poe Lock — is operating normally. But many worry an unexpected breakdown could throw the shipping industry (not to mention the industries dependent on the products shipped) into chaos and hurt our state and nation’s economy.

Just as the construction of the Mackinac Bridge had a profound impact on economic development and quality of life for Michigan, accelerating broadband and cell investment throughout the U.P. and improving the Locks would provide new opportunities to our rural communities.

Tom Watkins is a business and educational consultant in the U.S. and China.