Finley: ‘Stars aligning’ on Soo Locks expansion
Sometimes presidential impulsiveness can be a good thing.
Like when three Michigan congressmen climb into a limousine with President Donald Trump and he asks them for their wish list.
By the time the ride from Selfridge Air National Guard Base to a Washington Township sports complex was over, Reps. Paul Mitchell, Jack Bergman and John Moolenaar had secured from the whim-driven president a nearly $1 billion promise to expand the critical Soo Locks, an infrastructure project state officials had been begging Washington to fund for more than three decades.
Trump hastily added the Soo Locks pledge to his April 28 speech at the Macomb County rally.
“Your lock isn’t working too well, it’s not working too well,” the president told the crowd. “It hasn’t been fixed in 50 years, in all fairness. I told your congressmen, ‘Write that name down for me. It’s the Army Corps of Engineers. We’re gonna be calling them. It could be tonight, depending on the time we get back.”
The call didn’t come that night — nothing moves that fast in Washington — but in the weeks since Trump’s speech, the representatives say they’ve seen a surge of activity within the federal bureaucracy that they believe will soon produce the go-ahead for adding capacity to the locks.
“We are closer to getting the Soo Locks to the next step in the process than we’ve been at any point in time,” says Mitchell, R-Dryden. “The Army Corp has been responsive to our requests.”
That next step is a revised economic impact study expected in the coming month. A previous study determined the expansion was not economically justified. But Rep. Bergman, R-Watersmeet, says that original report, now 30-years-old, was based on bad metrics and is sorely outdated.
Rep. Moolenaar, R-Midland, notes language was included in the water resources bill that passed the House Wednesday to authorize the Army Corps to expedite the Soo Locks project if the new economic report is favorable, as he expects it will be. That would allow funding to be included in the bill when it goes to conference committee later this summer. The lock expansion was first authorized by Congress in 1986, but the funds were never appropriated.
Bergman, whose northern Michigan district includes the locks, says he senses a greater sense of urgency since the president’s speech, and is “cautiously optimistic” the corps will move on starting the work next year. It will take seven years to complete.
“The president is watching this project,” Bergman says. “The White House is engaged at all levels.”
He recounts how the subject came up with Trump.
“I was sitting next to him in back of the limo and he asked ‘what are the issues in Michigan, what do I need to know?’” Bergman says. “I said Soo Locks. He said, ‘What are the Soo locks?’ I explained to him the impact on the economy and national security should the locks close and he jumped right on it.
“He read his notes right into the speech.”
Moolenaar says that speech, “galvanized and energized interest in the locks in a way we haven’t seen before.”
The Soo Locks, in Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, connect Lake Superior to the other four Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. The locks are vital to the steel industry —99 percent of the iron ore used in steel making comes from Michigan and Minnesota mines above the locks.
Most of it is transported on giant freighters. Sixty percent of those ships are restricted by size to the Poe Lock, which at 1,200-foot long, 110-foot wide and 32-foot deep is the largest of the four Soo Locks and the only one capable of handling the large lake freighters which make up 60 percent of shipping vessels. Nearly 7,000 ships carrying $500 billion of goods pass through annually.
Should the Poe Lock become disabled it would back up ships and slow the national economy. Estimates are that a six-month emergency shut down for repairs would impact 11 million jobs nationwide. It would also impact national security, because iron ore is so essential to steel production.
“It takes steel to go to war,” says James H.I. Weakley, president of the Lake Carrier’s Association, who is currently on Capitol Hill lobbying for the project. “Without the Soo Locks, there is no steel. There is no rail capacity to move that much ore.”
A report from the Department of Homeland Security last year said “it is hard to conceive” of a piece of infrastructure anywhere in the United States that is more consequential than the Soo Locks.
“It would be devastating if it shut down,” Mitchell says.
Weakley says the value of Trump’s Macomb speech in moving things off the dime is inestimable.
“Regardless of who a president is, when the president speaks, it has an impact,” he says. “The people in the corps are really starting to understand the national significance of the project. The stars seem to be aligning.”
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