Senate committees adopt resolution, urge U.S. to upgrade Soo Locks

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – At a rare joint hearing of the state Senate Commerce, Transportation, and Economic Development and International Investment committees on Monday, legislators adopted Senate Resolution 105 to encourage the federal government to support plans to upgrade the Soo Locks and approve a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reprogramming request to fund an Economic Reevaluation Report for replacing the Davis and Sabin locks.

Citing the locks’ vital importance to Michigan’s, the U.S.’s and Canada’s economies, resolution sponsor Sen. Wayne Schmidt said modernizing the locks is needed now more than ever.

“A 21st century Michigan economy demands a modern Soo Locks,” said Commerce Committee Chairman Schmidt, R-Traverse City. “Despite the rapid transformation and growth of our economy, the Soo Locks have not kept up with the times. The economy, businesses and jobs all rely heavily on the Soo Locks, and we urge leaders in Washington, D.C. to act to modernize the locks to continue the positive economic momentum.”

SR 105 highlights the necessity to upgrade the locks, particularly the smallest, 100-year-old Davis and Sabin locks. Only one of the four Soo Locks is currently large enough to accommodate the modern vessels that commonly traverse the Great Lakes. Seventy percent of cargo is carried on the large ships that can only pass through the Poe Lock. The remaining cargo goes through the smaller MacArthur Lock, while the Davis and Sabin locks are rarely used.

Approximately 10,000 vessels travel through the locks annually, carrying 80 million tons of iron ore, coal, grain, and other cargo. Nearly 80 percent of domestic iron ore, the primary material used to manufacture steel, travels from mines in the Upper Peninsula and neighboring states through the Soo Locks.

“It is unacceptable that, in 2015, so much relies on so little when it comes to moving vital materials and supplies through the Great Lakes that are needed to support thousands of jobs,” said Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba. “With effectively only one useable lock, we are putting serious strain on the system, and are in a vulnerable position that threatens both the economy and the security of our state and nation. The federal government must act to upgrade this integral part of our transportation system and ensure the long term health and safety of the economy.”

Legislators adopted the resolution during the joint hearing, held at the Lake Superior State University Cisler Center. Committee members also heard testimony from industry representatives, including from Lake Carriers’ Association Environmental and Regulatory Affairs Director Tom Rayburn.

“The Great Lakes Navigation System has evolved into the most economically efficient and environmentally friendly way to transport ore, stone, coal, salt and grain,” Rayburn said. “However, the Soo Locks is also the greatest weakness to the system as a potential single point of failure. The current Poe Lock is the only lock that can handle the 13-thousand-foot ships and 19 other U.S.-flag vessels that, combined, represent approximately 70 percent of the country’s capacity on the lakes. In a worst case scenario, 32 U.S.-flag ships would be trapped above and below the locks. Three-quarters of all integrated steel production would cease within two to six weeks. This would impact nearly 11 million U.S. jobs and potentially increase Michigan’s unemployment to 22.5 percent.

“A new lock will provide the secure, redundant, and reliable Soo Lock system vital to Michigan, other Great Lakes states, and the nation. Senate Resolution 105 is critical to moving the process forward.”

The Army Corps study would investigate the possibility of replacing the Davis and Sabin locks with a new, larger lock that can run alongside the Poe Lock. Estimates indicate such a project could cost at least $600 million, but with a new, modern lock in place, shipping between Lakes Huron and Michigan could carry on uninterrupted in the event one lock were to go down. Without a second large lock, presently an unscheduled outage of the Poe Lock could result in the loss of more than $5 million per day of an outage.

“The Soo Locks are a major factor to not only Michigan’s economy but also to our state’s number one trade partner, Canada, and to the rest of the world,” said Economic Development and International Investment Committee Chairman Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth. “If Michigan wants its remarkable economic turnaround to continue, we need to increase access to both import and export opportunities, and a modernized Soo Locks is essential to achieving those goals and securing our economic future.”

SR 105 now goes before the full Senate for consideration.

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Photo Caption: Members of the Senate Commerce, Transportation, and Economic Development and International Investment committees on hear testimony on Senate Resolution 105 at a joint committee hearing at Lake Superior State University on Monday, Nov. 2. The resolution encourages the federal government to support plans to upgrade the Soo Locks.

Editor’s Note: Click the above photo for a print-quality version of the image.