Advocates hope Soo repair funds open door to new Poe-sized lock


With the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers poised to make nearly $74 million in repairs to the aging Soo Locks, advocates hope the funding is the next step toward construction of a new lock at the site. Located on the St. Marys River at Sault. Ste. Marie, Mich., the locks enable ships to manage the 21-foot elevation drop from Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes.

The Corps will spend $15.8 million from its operations and maintenance account on general repairs to the locks in fiscal year 2018, compared to $9.6 million in FY 2017. More notable is the $57.5 million in the FY 2018 work plan for “general rehabilitation” identified by an internal report, including replacement valve machinery and repairs to pump wells, bulkheads and ship lock arrestors.

“We knew we had major maintenance needs up there,” said Harry Salisbury, chief of programs and project management for the Corps’ Detroit District, which manages the locks. “The report is a process to find funding for big-ticket items when … the annual operations and maintenance budget isn’t sufficient.”

During the ice-free shipping season between March and January, more than 10,000 ships haul approximately 86 million tons of cargo through the locks. All traffic is currently limited to the 800-foot MacArthur Lock, built in 1943, and the 1,200-foot Poe Lock, built in 1896. Originally 800 feet long, Poe was expanded in 1968 after the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway made it possible for larger ships to travel the Great Lakes.

Two additional locks, Davis and Sabin, are no longer operational. In 1986, Congress approved construction of a redundant Poe-sized lock to replace them. Groundbreaking began nearly a decade ago, but the project stalled for want of federal funding after a Corps study found a low benefits-to-cost ratio for the $1 billion project. Results of a new two-year study released in June identified flawed assumptions in the initial study and determined a significantly higher benefits-to-cost ratio.

“That puts it in a really good position to compete for funding,” said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers’ Association, which represents U.S.-flag vessel operators on the Great Lakes and was critical of the initial study’s findings. “This is the best spot we’ve been in for a long time.”

In 2015, a 20-day shutdown of the MacArthur Lock for repairs delayed the delivery of nearly 2 million tons of cargo. Calling the Soo Locks “the Achilles’ heel of the North American industrial economy,” the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said in a recent report that a six-month Poe closure could have a far-reaching effect on the nation’s economy, leading to the closure of factories and mines and the loss of nearly 11 million jobs nationwide.

“The $74 million in repairs is not a long-term solution,” Nekvasil said. “The long-term solution is building another Poe-sized lock.”

According to the state of Michigan, more than $500 billion in iron ore passes through the locks each year. A long-term closure of the Poe Lock could shut down the entire American auto production industry and lead to a $1.3 trillion decrease in the gross domestic product, the state has predicted.

“Having a second Poe-sized lock will not only increase reliability of the Soo Locks, but will allow us to be more efficient in our maintenance,” said Dave Wright, chief of operations for the Corps’ Detroit District. “Right now everything is done between January and March — that’s not an ideal time to do that kind of work.”

The Corps will present the results of its most recent economic validation study to federal lawmakers as it makes recommendations for FY 2020 appropriations.

“With the favorable results of the new study, the process of building a new lock can now start grinding forward,” said Steve Fisher, executive director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association, which represents the interests of commercial ports and port users in the region.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said his state will contribute $50 million toward the $1 billion project, and will work with other Great Lakes states to secure additional commitments to complement federal funds. If approved, construction of a new lock could be completed by 2030.

By Professional Mariner Staff