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Soo Locks rebuild runs out of cash. Nobody's really worried

Funding to complete a Soo Locks modernization study has been inexplicably cut from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 2017 work plan. But officials are optimistic the work will continue
FILE PHOTO: Soo Locks/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The U.S Army Corps of Engineers learned last week that the funding it needs to complete a modernization study of the Soo Locks has been inexplicably cut.

"That study's been marching along and was scheduled to be completed for December 2017," Kevin Sprague, area engineer for the Corps of Engineers, told a joint meeting of the Ontario Sault's City Council and the Michigan Sault's City Commission.

"We just got our 2017 work plan two weeks ago and we discovered that the funding required to complete that study had been removed, unexpectedly," Sprague said.

"We have efforts underway to try to re-program funds from other projects to complete this study. By the time we re-program funds, it will be another six months before we can complete the study."

In January, U.S. President Donald Trump included construction of a new US$580-million lock on his list of the nation's top 50 infrastructure projects.

The massive construction job could bring as many as 15,000 jobs to the area.

The existing locks haven't undergone a major modernization in a half-century and 100-year-old equipment is still in use.

Lawmakers and local officials fear the local transportation infrastructure is so critical that a North America-wide recession might occur if the Poe Lock failed.

Speaking to SooToday after the joint meeting on Tuesday night, Spague elaborated further about the unexpected elimination of the project from the Corps of Engineers 2017 work plan:

"The budget comes through. Then we get a work plan, The work plan basically tells us how to spend the money. I think there's another $400,000 required to complete the study."

Who made the decision to cut funding for the project?

"It was above our headquarters level somewhere," Sprague told us. "I don't know for sure how or why. There could have been a reason for it. I don't know yet. That information hasn't filtered down yet."

Still, Sprague remains confident that work on a new superlock, comparable in size to the existing Poe Lock, will continue.

"Things will turn around. There's too much going on. It's just another bump in the road."

It would appear that there's political will to complete the job.

On Wednesday, in a rare demonstration of bipartisan co-operation, a group of Michigan Democratic senators and Republican congressmen introduced a Soo Locks Modernization Act.

If approved, the law would authorize federal funding needed to construct another Poe-sized lock.

The following news release was issued Wednesday by Congressman Jack Bergman:

Stabenow, Bergman and Michigan delegation members introduce bipartisan Soo Locks Modernization Act

Legislation cosponsored by Senator Peters, Representatives Levin, Upton, Huizenga, Walberg, Kildee, Bishop, Dingell, Lawrence, Moolenaar, Trott, and Mitchell

WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, Representative Jack Bergman, U.S. Senator Gary Peters, and Representatives Sandy Levin, Fred Upton, Bill Huizenga, Tim Walberg, Dan Kildee, Mike Bishop, Debbie Dingell, Brenda Lawrence, John Moolenaar, Dave Trott, and Paul Mitchell today introduced the bipartisan Soo Locks Modernization Act.

The legislation authorizes the necessary level of funding to construct another Poe-sized lock.

Introduction of this legislation comes just days after seven members of Michigan’s congressional delegation and Governor Snyder toured the Soo Locks, which are critical to both our state’s and our country’s economy and national security.

The Soo Locks facility is comprised of four parallel locks – the Poe, the MacArthur, the Sabin, and the Davis. 

Today, only the Poe and MacArthur locks are operational.

Only the Poe lock is large enough to handle 70 percent of the cargo that passes through the locks.

There have been no comprehensive improvements to the Soo Locks facility in nearly 50 years.

Approximately 80 million tons of iron ore, coal, stone, grain, and other commercial commodities pass through the locks annually.

“We are on borrowed time until something happens that shuts down the Poe Lock,” said Senator Stabenow. “Just last week, our delegation toured the Soo Locks and saw pumps that were 100 years old and a lock built back in World War II. Our whole delegation is working together to secure funding to build a replacement lock. We must ensure this vital gateway for commerce and jobs stays open.”

“The First District is the proud home of one of the most important drivers of industry, jobs, and the economy in our country: the Soo Locks,” Rep. Jack Bergman said. “That said, we’ve reached the point where modernization is absolutely critical to prevent unscheduled interruptions in operation and nationwide economic disaster. Right now, we have the leadership we need at every level to push forward and get this project funded. That’s what this legislation is all about – investing in Michigan’s future – and I’m proud to be joined by a bipartisan majority of the Michigan delegation in introducing it.”

“The Soo Locks have been called the Achilles’ heel of our American manufacturing industry, and even a short unplanned outage at the Poe Lock would seriously impact Michigan’s manufacturers and our national economy,” said Senator Peters. “I’m proud to join my colleagues to introduce bipartisan legislation that will authorize much-needed upgrades to the aging Soo Locks and ensure American manufacturers can continue to operate without the looming threat of a potential failure or shutdown.”

“The Soo Locks play a critical role in our state’s economy by transporting almost 80 million tons of commercial commodities annually – goods that are of great importance to Michigan’s manufacturing and agriculture sectors. Without proper investment in the locks, we are putting Michigan jobs in jeopardy,” said Rep. Sandy Levin.

“During our bipartisan delegation trip to the Soo Locks we discussed the critical need to upgrade and build a replacement lock, ensuring this vibrant commercial gateway remains open and operational,” Rep. Fred Upton said. “Not completing this project could lead to significant economic consequences for both Michigan and the country. By investing in our future, we can ensure Michigan stays on the cutting edge of job and economic growth. I look forward to continuing working closely with my Michigan colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get this bipartisan legislation across the finish line.”

“The Soo Locks are vital not only to Michigan manufacturing but to our nation’s economy as a whole,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga. “It is imperative the Army Corps identifies a fiscally sound approach to modernizing the locks.”

 “Great Lakes shipping has a significant economic impact on the Port of Monroe in my district, the entire state of Michigan, and the country as a whole,” said Rep. Tim Walberg. “The Soo Locks are a critical gateway in transporting products across the region, and a disruption in operations would be damaging for our economy and harm millions of jobs. Modernizing the Soo Locks has been put off for too long, and I'm delighted to work in a bipartisan way to finally get this project done.”

“Sadly, many issues in Congress become politicized and divisive, but our Michigan delegation has worked really hard to overcome conventional partisanship when our state’s economy and interests are at stake. Modernizing and expanding the Soo Locks and protecting our Great Lakes are both issues that Democrats and Republicans agree on and will fight to do. Michigan’s economy and tens of thousands of jobs directly tied to the Soo Locks and our Great Lakes are at stake,” Rep. Dan Kildee said.

“The Soo Locks are a pivotal part of Michigan’s economy and the Midwest region as a whole,” said Rep. Mike Bishop. “Our entire delegation must work together to ensure this essential gateway through the Great Lakes can continue operating for years to come.”

“The Soo Locks are vital to the economic health and security not only of Michigan, but the entire United States, and making sure they are working and reliable should be an American priority,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell. “If the Poe Lock were to shut down for six months, the consequences for our economy could be devastating, with 11 million jobs lost nationwide. This bipartisan legislation recognizes the urgent need for action, and ensures we take the proactive and necessary steps to safeguard the locks and our economy for decades to come.”

“I was glad to join a bipartisan Michigan delegation to visit the Soo Locks recently, and we all could agree on the vital role the locks play in the state of Michigan and our nation,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence. “The functioning of the locks significantly impacts our economy and national security and we must do all that we can to support its function. That is why I support this legislation that would authorize adequate funding to complete the needed repairs to the locks so that the commerce that is critical to our nation continues to flourish and jobs are secured for the American people.”

“The Soo Locks are vital to our country,” Rep. John Moolenaar said. “We need to improve the 50-year old infrastructure and build a new lock to grow the economy and protect good-paying jobs for hard-working Michigan residents.”

"Transporting billions of dollars of goods annually, the functionality of the deteriorating Soo Locks is critical to Michigan's economy, our national economy, and our national security,” Rep. Dave Trott said. “We need to ensure this economic lifeline can accommodate 21st Century freighters and support good paying jobs for hardworking Michigan families."

“The Soo Locks are a critical piece of American infrastructure that are long overdue for an upgrade,” said Rep. Paul Mitchell. “A failure at the locks would have disastrous consequences for the U.S. economy, causing businesses to close, and costing jobs. We simply cannot allow that to happen. I am proud to support this legislation to authorize necessary updates to the Soo Locks and protect the future of our economy. The time to update America’s infrastructure is now.”

In 2015, the MacArthur Lock experienced a scheduled outage when a faulty gate mechanism forced a rare mid-shipping season shutdown that closed the lock for 20 days while crews performed repairs. The closure of the MacArthur Lock forced all traffic to transit the Poe and delayed the delivery of 1.9 million tons of cargo.

A report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Cyber and Infrastructure Analysis concluded it was “hard to conceive” of a single piece of infrastructure more consequential than the lock in terms of impact to the economy from an unexpected and sustained breakdown. A six-month closure of the Poe Lock would bring steel production and manufacturing industries to an effective halt. It also could cause Michigan’s unemployment rate to hit 20 per cent.