Second Poe-Sized Lock

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 so there is finally redundancy for the now 49-year old Poe Lock. The "Soo Locks" connect Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, and typically handle 80-plus million tons of cargo per year, including 42 million tons of iron ore for steel production. Ninety-plus percent of that ore and indeed all cargoes moves through the Poe Lock. All domestically mined iron ore destined for steelmakers in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania must pass through the Soo Locks.

Twinning the Poe Lock is a perfect vehicle for energizing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula economy. The $922 million project is shovel ready, and the construction of the new lock is estimated to generate as many as 1.5 million hours for construction workers. One economist likens the project to opening an auto manufacturing plant in the area.

The project languished for more than a decade because of a flawed benefit/cost ratio (BCR), but on June 29, 2018, the Corps issued its New Soo Lock Economic Validation Study which determined the project’s BCR was in fact 2.42, well over the requirement to be included in an Administration budget. James C. Dalton, the Corps’ Director of Civil Works, declared “The strategic importance of the Soo Locks cannot be overstated.” LCA will now focus its efforts on having the project included in the next Federal budget. Construction is projected to take seven years.

The benefits will continue long after construction is complete. More than 90 percent of all cargo transiting the Soo Locks in 2017 passed through the Poe Lock. The Poe Lock is even more critical for the U.S.-flag Great Lakes fleet. More than 96 percent of their cargos that transited the Soo Locks passed through the Poe Lock.

Redundancy will ensure a failure of the Poe Lock does not bring Great Lakes shipping and national manufacturing 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. Seventy-seven U.S.-flag lakers and the 1.8 million tons of cargo they carried were significantly delayed. 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 stopped cold, not just delayed.

A 2016 Department of Homeland Security study found that a 6-month closure of the Poe Lock would throw nearly 11 million Americans out of work and cost the economy $1.1 trillion. Approximately 75 percent of U.S. integrated steel production would cease within 2-6 weeks of the lock failing (now nearly 100 percent since Escanaba has ceased shipping iron ore) and nearly all North American production of automobiles, appliances and heavy equipment would end soon afterwards. A 2017 study commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department finds that a second Poe-sized lock would have a net economic benefit of as much as $1.7 billion and a benefit/cost (b/c) ratio between 2.0 and 4.0.

The Soo Locks are the single point of failure that would cripple Great Lakes shipping and heavy manufacturing if the Poe went down. With the positive BCR in hand, the Corps’ 2019 budget should include adequate funds to complete the design work and start the construction of the new lock. President Trump agrees. Speaking before a rally in Washington Township, Michigan, on April 28, 2018, the President declared: “Your lock, it’s not looking too well. We’re going to start (on an upgrade) as soon as I get back to (to Washington, DC).”

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