The St. Lawrence Seaway: 50 years old and positioning for tomorrow’s growth

As the St. Lawrence Seaway marks its 50th anniversary, it is embarking on a modernization program and looking for ways to adapt and grow in a rapidly changing economy.

“We are pressing ahead with a number of initiatives to position the system for success during the next 50 years,†said Richard Corfe, president and CEO of the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC).

Collister Johnson Jr., administrator of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. (SLSDC), said the U.S. federal funding authorized in March 2009 starts a 10-year program that represents “the first time in the Seaway’s history that a coordinated effort to repair and modernize the U.S. Seaway infrastructure has taken place. It will also complement the asset renewal work already underway on the Canadian portion.â€

This program to renew the Seaway’s infrastructure recognizes that the current structures were built with a design life of approximately 50 years and are now in need of major capital reinvestments.

A downbound laker passes out of the Lock 7 of the Welland Canal on its way to Lake Ontario. Visible on te sides of the lock are the slots containing vacuum mooring devices, and innovation designed to speed up canal transits.

The Seaway’s administration is shared jointly by the SLSMC in Canada and the SLSDC in the United States, with each organization responsible for operating and maintaining the Seaway’s infrastructure within its territorial area.

Various proven and innovative technologies have been introduced at the Seaway’s locks. The conversion to hydraulic drive systems for the miter gates is well underway. Vessel self-spotting systems for positioning in the locks under the control of the vessel master are being adapted.

Hands-free mooring by the use of vacuum pads to secure vessels during lockage will further speed transit times making the Seaway more cost competitive. All the locks are expected to be equipped with the hands-free system by the end of 2010.

In 2006, the Seaway recorded above-average tonnage growth — the figure of 47.16 million tons represented a 9.7 percent increase over the 43 million tons posted in 2005. That increase was the result of a combination of factors, including the longest recorded Seaway operating season, high iron ore demand combined with low inventories, increased steel imports and excellent grain traffic levels.

By 2008, however, volume had fallen to 40.8 million tons, a 13.5 percent decline from 2006. Johnson pointed out that in 2008 reduced steel imports produced a “significant fall in salties trading in the Great Lakes which depend on grain as a backhaul cargo.â€

The SLSMC’s annual report noted, “following the worldwide financial meltdown in the latter part of 2008, we went from enjoying a good year, with more new cargo than anticipated transiting the system, to a very weak last quarter with final traffic figures below those reported in 2007.â€

Corfe called 2008 “the meltdown†in which “the economic downturn, loss of confidence and lack of credit have caused a significant drop-off in the cargoes traditionally shipped in the Seaway.â€

During the first 91 days of the 2009 season, compared to the same period in 2008, combined vessel traffic between Montreal and the Lake Erie end of the Welland Canal was down from 1,470 to 1,055 transits and total cargo declined 36 percent to just over 9 million tons.

Since its inception, over 2.5 billion tons of cargo has transited the Seaway. Total annual Seaway tonnage showed steady declines from the late 90s until 2004, when traffic began to recover significantly. But all that growth was lost in the economic turmoil of the last few years. The 40.8 million tons of cargo carried in 2008 represents the low point for the period since 1998. And the totals for 2009 are likely to be significantly lower, based on the results of the first quarter.

The Seaway’s locks are too small, both in length and width, for today’s larger oceangoing ships. That fact has been cited to question the future economic viability of the Seaway. However, large oceangoing ships would probably not be the vessels of choice for most Great Lakes traffic, sufficient numbers of Seaway-size vessels exist and shipping trading patterns may evolve in response to efforts to encourage new short-sea shipping, which would typically employ vessels small enough to use the Seaway to reach the Great Lakes.

The port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, is expanding one of its container terminals to enable it to handle the largest box ships now being built. With that project nearing completion, discussions are underway for creating a short-sea container shipping network linking Halifax and the Great Lakes.

“The St. Lawrence Seaway’s sustainability is intrinsically linked to our ability to adapt to an ever-changing world.,†said Corfe.

Richard O. Aichele

By Professional Mariner Staff