Efficient Funding for the New Large Lock at the Soo

Now that the new large lock at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan (the “Soo”) is underway, it is imperative to maintain the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ annual efficient funding for this project to keep design and construction moving ahead at full steam.

The navigational locks (Soo Locks) in the St. Marys River are a single point of failure in the Great Lakes commercial maritime trade.  According to the Army Corps, the Great Lakes Navigation System creates at least $3.9 billion annually in transportation rate savings for U.S. businesses.  A 2015 Department of Homeland Security Study, “The Perils of Efficiency,” determined 11 million U.S. jobs and $1.1 trillion in gross domestic product depend on the largest lock at the Soo, the Poe.  Had the Poe Lock been unable to reopen for an extended period after its winter maintenance program, the impacts of COVID-19 on the North American supply chain would have been accelerated and even more devastating.  The Midwestern steel manufacturing plants would not have been able to resupply their iron ore stockpiles.  Blast furnaces would have been banked.  Automobile and heavy manufacturing’s raw material supply would be in jeopardy.

The Poe was completed and opened for traffic in 1969.  This lock heralded in a new era of Great Lakes shipping, allowing for the construction of the U.S.-flag 1,000-feet long self-unloading vessels, so called “footers.”  These 13 footers revolutionized the Great Lakes supply chain for steel, energy production, construction, and a host of other business sectors reliant on the dry bulk cargos moved by water on the Great Lakes.  These footers are the longest vessels in the U.S. commercial fleet and are as long as an aircraft carrier along the waterline.  The footers replaced anywhere from three to seven existing Great Lakes vessels each and are each capable of carrying 75,000 tons of iron ore from the mines accessible only from Lake Superior and therefore completely reliant on the Poe Lock.  Over ninety percent of our cargo moves through the Poe.  It is truly the single point of failure in the Great Lakes Navigation System.

Realizing this, in 1986 Congress authorized the construction of a new large lock to match the dimensions of the Poe to add redundancy to this vital economic artery.  However, funds were not appropriated to construct the lock for decades.  In 2007, the Water Resources Development Act reauthorized the new large lock at 100 percent federal cost share.  The Army Corps was instructed to begin the process of design and construction.  Unfortunately, the Army Corps balked and instead released a flawed cost benefit analysis claiming that the benefit-to-cost ratio was below 1.0 and not eligible for funding.  Industry, and many federal and state legislators, strongly disagreed and voiced their concerns that the Army Corps had rolled weighted dice to meet their purposes and not the public interest.

In 2016, the Army Corps relented and reevaluated the cost benefit analysis.  This second time, with public inclusion, the construction and operation of a new large lock was found to be strongly justified and necessary for America’s economic and security strength.  The benefit-to-cost ratio nearly tripled.  Design and construction would finally move forward.

The State of Michigan jumpstarted the new lock in 2018 for the Army Corps by infusing the project with $52 million of their own funds.  The Army Corps added some monies from their FY ’18 discretionary work plan funds.  In FY ‘19, the President, Congress, and again with the Army Corps’ discretionary funds, the project was fully funded to the maximum extent that could be utilized.  The Army Corps refers to this as “efficient funding.”  In FY ‘20, the President placed into his budget request $123.2 million for this project.  While substantial and greatly appreciated, this request falls short of efficient funding for FY ’21 by $50 million.

The project is moving forward.  Deepening of the upstream approach channel began this spring.  Design work on the lock chamber is nearing completion.  Industry has been engaged to help and refine the design.  Upgrades to bring the new lock into the 21st Century are being integrated into the design like hands free mooring that will mean that the entire Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway will be one of the, if not the most, efficient inland navigation systems in the world.

With efficient funding, the project can be completed and the new lock opened in as few as seven years.  This is a $922 million critical U.S. infrastructure project.  The Army Corps estimates that the project will create 1,240 jobs annually, including 600 direct jobs, 210 indirect jobs and 430 induced jobs.  It will require more than 735,000 tons of domestically quarried construction stone, 35,000 tons of American-made cement and 20,000 tons of American-made steel.  Without the second Poe-sized lock, the system lacks resiliency and is dependent on a single point of failure.

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