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Editorial: Feds should boost Soo Locks project

The Detroit News

Shipping remains a vital industry on the Great Lakes, but without investment in the critical Soo Locks to accommodate modern 1,000-foot freighters, the potential of the lakes as a waterway will be limited. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should make it a priority to update the locks.

Construction is 30 years overdue, and it’s time the federal government finished what it started. Congress in 1986 approved replacing the Davis and Sabin locks with a longer and deeper one to handle the massive ships, know as Lakers. But funding has not been authorized even though neither of these locks is usable today.

Owned by the federal government and administered by the Army Corps, the Soo Locks are important to both the economy and national security of the U.S. and Canada.

Republican Rep. Dan Benishek, whose district includes the locks, is heading the bipartisan effort of the Michigan congressional delegation to get the corps to release information that could upgrade the cost-benefit ratio for the locks. The higher the ratio, the better the chances of Congress appropriating the needed funds.

In weighing the importance of the locks, the figures speak for themselves.

Eighty million tons of cargo pass through the locks annually. The largest commodity is iron ore, which is vital to the U.S. steel and automobile industries. Also, large volumes of coal from western states such as Wyoming and Montana are transported through the locks to power electrical plants in the lower Great Lakes. More than 4,500 commercial ships use the locks yearly.

Of the two operating locks, only the Poe Lock is big enough for the 1,000-foot freighters. According to reports, the iron ore shipped through this lock accounts for about 3.2 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. The importance of this lock can’t be exaggerated. About 70 percent of the commercial goods that go through the Soo use the Poe Lock.

Consequently, members of Congress worry that any shutdown or disruption at the lock could halt these shipments for months and severely impact the national economy.

As Benishek stresses: “The Soo Locks are more than just an important part of Northern Michigan’s economy, they are a gateway to commerce for the nation. These locks represent the primary avenue for the transport of materials that are critical to our economy and national defense.”

The waterway needs to be modernized with a second large lock and both need to be equipped with fail-safes so that they remain operational.

There’s no time to waste. Estimates indicate it will take up to 10 years to complete the project at a cost of up to $580 million.

In 2009, two coffer dams, prerequisites to building a new lock, were installed. But no additional funding is available.

The Army Corps must revamp the cost-benefit ratio and increase the priority on this project so that Congress can authorize the funds to complete the work on this vital waterway.