The Water Resources Development Act of 2007 directs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a second Poe-sized lock at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, at full Federal expense. The "Soo Locks" connect Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, and typically handle more than 80 million tons of cargo per year.
Iron ore for steel production is the primary cargo transiting the Soo Locks. Shipments typically total 45 million tons. The other leading cargos are low-sulfur coal (15 million tons), grain (7 million tons) and limestone (5 million tons).
Twinning the Poe Lock is a perfect vehicle for energizing the region's economy. The $590 million project is shovel ready, and would, over a decade, generate 1.5 million man hours for construction workers. One economist likens the project to opening an auto manufacturing plant in the area.
The benefits will continue long after construction is complete. Since nearly 70 percent of U. S.-flag carrying capacity is restricted to the Poe Lock, redundancy will ensure a failure of the Poe Lock does not bring Great Lakes shipping to a virtual standstill. This means steel mills and power plants no longer need fear crippling disruptions in their supply chain should the Poe Lock fail, and the U. S. military no longer needs fear a slowdown or cessation of steel production.
The nation got a foretaste of what a failure of the Poe Lock would mean when a misalignment of the miter gates forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to close the MacArthur Lock for 20 days during the summer of 2015. U.S.-flag lakers were delayed 77 times between July 29 and August 17 and the cargos they were carrying topped 1.8 million tons. At least in this instance vessels small enough to transit the MacArthur Lock can use the Poe. If the Poe had failed, cargos would have been cancelled, not delayed.
The coffer dams at either end of what will be the new chamber are in place, so if Congress will appropriate $100 million or so this year, full-scale construction could be underway almost immediately. If the project is funded in small increments, the 10-year construction schedule will be extended and the overall cost will increase due to the inefficiencies inherent with incremental funding.
The reason the project has stalled is a flawed benefit/cost (b/c) study that incorrectly assumes the railroads can fill the void if the Poe Lock goes down for a lengthy period of time. That conclusion is wrong in two regards: 1) the nation's railroads cannot even meet current demand, let alone the cargo moved by lakers; and 2) many end users, steel mills in particular, lack rail access. The Corps has acknowledged these failing and has agreed to produce an Economic Reevaluation Report within the next two years.
A Department of Homeland Security study released in March 2016 has added more urgency to providing redundancy for the Poe Lock. A study of a 6-month closure of the Poe Lock would strip nearly 11 million Americans of their paychecks and cost the economy $1.1 trillion in economic activity. Michigan and Indiana would suffer the highest unemployment rates, 22.6 and 22.0 percent respectively. Approximately 75 percent of U.S. integrated steel production would cease within 2-6 weeks of the lock failing.
In short, the Soo Locks are the single point of failure that could cripple Great Lakes shipping. America must twin the 47-year-old Poe Lock and adequately maintain the infrastructure at the Soo.