Sault Ste. Marie – The 455-foot Zelada Desgagnes pauses while 22 million gallons of water are pumped into the Poe Lock, raising the hefty cargo ship 21 feet so it can continue on to Lake Superior to pick up iron ore, grain or other commodities.
It’s one of about 3,800 ships this year that will pass through the Poe, the largest of four locks at the Soo complex Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the only one capable of handling ships wider than 76 feet.
“The raw materials that come through here on a massive basis – we can see it with this large ship here – would probably take three or four thousand trucks if these locks were broken and you couldn’t get these ships through,” U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said Friday.
“If this lock is shut down, the American economy shuts down. It is that significant.”
Peters joined U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Gov. Rick Snyder, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton and other congressional members for a bipartisan tour of the Soo Locks, an engineering marvel that is showing significant signs of age.
They are urging the federal government to authorize as much as $1 billion to construct a new Poe-sized lock at the Soo complex, a critical conduit between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes for transporting goods and raw materials, including iron ore for steel production that is heavily relied on by automakers and other industries.
A mechanical or structural failure at the 49-year-old Poe Lock would be “catastrophic for the nation,” according to a late 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which concluded a disruption could jeopardize 11 million U.S. jobs and plunge the economy into a severe recession.
“We’re on borrowed time, I think,” Stabenow, a Lansing Democrat, told The Detroit News. “We looked at a pump that was 100 years old. It’s unbelievable the engineering and that it’s still working.”
Stabenow and Republican U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman of Watersmeet on Thursday announced new federal legislation that would authorize spending on Soo Locks upgrades. They are hoping to jump start congressional action while they await the results of a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine if the benefits of the project would outweigh the cost.
A positive score could make the project a top priority for the Corps, Stabenow said.
The project, estimated to cost close to $1 billion over a 10-year construction period, would replace two smaller decommissioned locks built during World War I with a second Poe-sized lock capable of handling large “lakers” used to transport goods on the Great Lakes.
Lakers carrying iron ore use the Poe almost exclusively because they are too large for the smaller MacArthur Lock, built in 1943.
Michigan officials have long pushed for federal action on the Soo Locks modernization project, originally authorized in 1986 but never funded.
Their renewed efforts come as President Donald Trump pushes for increased infrastructure spending.
Trump’s proposed budget sets aside $200 billion for infrastructure spending over 10 years. During the 2016 campaign, the president pledged a $1 trillion investment. Trump advisers have been working on an infrastructure funding plan that would involve private money and not rely solely on government aid.
The Soo Locks topped Snyder’s federal infrastructure spending wish list for Michigan, which was transmitted to the White House in February by the National Governors Association. The state House recently approved a resolution, sponsored by Republican Rep. Lee Chatfield of Levering, urging the president and Congress to fully fund construction of a new lock.
“This is critical to the national economy, to all of us,” Snyder said. “We’re talking potentially millions of jobs at risk. We need a second lock.”
Snyder told reporters he has had multiple conversations with White House officials about the Soo Locks project. Peters said Michigan lawmakers are attempting to build a broad coalition with congressional members in other states whose economies are closely tied to the locks.
Much of the iron ore that passes through the Soo complex comes from Duluth, Minnesota, and is shipped to steel processing facilities in Cleveland or Chicago.
“This is the heartbeat of the nation that comes through here,” said Upton, a St. Joseph Republican and GOP dean of Michigan’s congressional delegation. “We got to make sure that it’s done.”
U.S. Reps. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, and Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, also toured the locks.
Mechanical problems with the 74-year-old MacArthur Lock, which handles roughly 4,100 smaller ships a year, forced an unexpected shutdown in 2015 that delayed transportation of an estimated 1.8 million tons of cargo.
Iron ore is typically transported by massive ships known as “One Thousand Footers,” which are roughly the length of four 747 planes nose to tail. They each carry about 70,000 tons of iron ore, the capacity of approximates 100 rail cars or 3,000 trucks.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to complete its analysis by December, updating a 2005 study that concluded costs of the modernization project would outweigh its benefits. Officials have questioned the assumptions, citing the economic importance of the locks.
A Poe failure would cause an almost complete shutdown of steel production in the Great Lakes, according to the Homeland Security report. Almost all appliance, auto, construction equipment, farm equipment, mining equipment and railcar production in North America could cease within weeks, according to the document.
The Soo project is also important for national security, said Bergman, telling reporters that one of the older locks was built during World War II to ensure the continued transportation of raw material needed to build planes, tanks and other equipment to win the war.
“They got it done then,” said Bergman, a retired Marine general. “It’s our time to get it done now, knowing as we look forward, the potential threats that we face.”
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