By Carl Stoddard
LANSING — Almost everyone agrees the Soo Locks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula need to be upgraded. Modernizing the locks won’t be cheap, and so far Congress hasn’t approved funding for the work.
But there are signs that might change under the administration of President Donald Trump, who has pledged to repair the country’s aging infrastructure.
Congress already has approved construction of a new lock at Sault Ste. Marie but hasn’t approved spending money on the project. The total construction cost is currently estimated at $580 million and would likely take 10 years to complete, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“I think it’s too early to say with any certainty what Trump’s infrastructure improvement plan will mean for Michigan, but I’m optimistic,” said newly elected U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, (R-Watersmeet), whose district includes Sault Ste. Marie.
“According to documents obtained by the Kansas City Star and the News Tribune, reconstruction of the Soo Locks reportedly ranks among the administration’s top 50 infrastructure projects and for good reason,” Bergman said in an email.
A U.S. Department of Homeland Security report predicted that an unscheduled six-month closure of the Poe Lock, the largest of the Soo Locks, could hurt the U.S. economy, devastating industries, crippling the job market and driving up unemployment in the Great Lakes region, Bergman said.
“I said during my campaign and I’ve said during the last month or so that I’ve been serving the First District in Congress that repairing and expanding the Soo Locks is one of my highest priorities,” he said.
“This is something that, left unchecked, could have real consequences not just for our economy but for homeland security. It needs to be addressed, and it needs to be addressed now.”
In his State of the State address Jan. 17, Gov. Rick Snyder said the Soo Locks are the state’s top priority at the national level.
“We need a second 1,000-foot lock,” Snyder said. “Our entire economy in this country is at risk with having only one lock. Homeland Security has said that themselves.”
In his address, Snyder said he plans to discuss the locks with the new president and Congress.
Improving the locks is also a top priority for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said Rich Studley, the chamber’s president and chief executive officer.
Improving the locks is “critically important” for Michigan’s economy and job growth, said Studley, whose organization represents 6,800 employers, trade associations and local chambers around the state.
“Modernizing the Soo Locks is at the top of the list of our things to do,” he said.
Studley said he has talked to Michigan’s U.S. senators and representatives about the project. And, he said, they all have expressed a strong interest in upgrading the locks.
“I think there are some positive developments at the federal level … to modernize the Soo Locks,” said Studley, who cautioned that plans still are in the very early stages with the new administration. “But the early signals are very encouraging.”
The Homeland Security study, released in June 2015, found that an “unanticipated closure” of the Poe Lock could cause more than 10 million people in the United States to lose their jobs and push North American economies into a severe recession.
“The recession impacts would be concentrated in the Great Lakes region though California and Texas would experience some of the largest job losses,” the study said.
“Entire manufacturing industries would be debilitated,” the study said, including automobiles, appliances, construction, farming, mining equipment, railcars and locomotives.
According to the Corps of Engineers, an average of 10,000 ships a year pass through the locks, carrying about 40 million tons of iron ore and coal.
In fact, about 90 percent of the world’s iron ore moves through the Soo Locks, according to a state of Michigan website.
In his inaugural speech, Trump repeated his pledge to rebuild America’s infrastructure, although he did not specifically mention the Soo Locks system.
“We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation,” Trump said in a speech after his swearing-in ceremony.
Under the previous administration, U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) both repeatedly pushed for a new lock.
Stabenow’s office said that she is continuing that effort to seek funding for improvements at the locks.
Peters can be expected to join her in that continuing effort.
“The Soo Locks are the lifeblood of economic activity on the Great Lakes, with many Michigan businesses relying on the Soo Locks to help transport their products to markets across America,” Peters said on his website
“An outage in the Poe Lock would have a catastrophic effect on not just Michigan’s economy, but the entire country’s economic health.”
In 2015, the Obama Administration approved $1.35 million for the Army Corps of Engineers to review upgrades for the Soo Locks, according to Stabenow’s website.
The Corps of Engineers said they looked at improving or replacing the Poe Lock at the Soo Locks.
The 1,200-foot-long Poe Lock is the longest lock at the Soo.
Lake Superior is about 600 feet above sea level. Water runs out of the lake through the St. Marys River, dropping about 25 feet as it flows roughly 75 miles down to Lake Huron. As the water drops from Lake Superior, it forms rapids along the section of the river separating Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, from its sister city, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
The locks on the U.S. side of the river are operated and maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. There is no charge for ships to use the locks.