05.19.16

Detroit Free Press: Peters, Stabenow urge quick work on Soo Locks study

WASHINGTON – Michigan’s U.S. senators on Thursday urged the head of the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite a study into the benefits of building a second, super-size navigation lock in the Upper Peninsula, citing concerns that a major shutdown could plunge the nation into a recession.

The letter from U.S. Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, both D-Mich., to Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy relies heavily on a previous study done by the Department of Homeland Security — and reported on in detail by the Free Press in March — indicating that a failure at the Poe Lock in Sault Ste. Marie, the only one capable of handling the largest freighters, could have vast consequences to the American economy.

Late last year, the Obama administration agreed to fund a $1.35-million re-evaluation of the cost-to-benefit ratio of building a second lock equal in size to the 1,200-foot-long Poe Lock at the Soo. But it could be years before it is completed, increasing the potential threat posed by a breakdown at the Poe.

“The recent meetings we have both held at the locks … highlighted the profound harm that an outage would have on the economy and security of Michigan, the Great Lakes region and the entire nation,” the senators wrote Darcy. “We appreciate your working with us to secure funding for the cost-benefit study … and we ask that every effort be made to compete this analysis as quickly as possible.”

The Soo Locks are  at a key choke point on the Great Lakes shipping channels, helping vessels — especially those carrying iron ore pellets from mines in Minnesota to steel mills scattered around the Great Lakes — navigate what would otherwise be a treacherous 21-foot drop along the St. Marys River.

The Homeland Security study found that there is neither enough rail nor truck capacity, or infrastructure, to make up for the loss of the Poe lock. And that a six-month shutdown, if one occurred during the sailing season, would close factories and mines, halt auto and appliance production in the U.S. for most of a year and result in the loss of some 11 million jobs across the nation.

Such a long shutdown is an unlikely event, and the Corps spends millions maintaining the locks at the Soo, including the 48-year-old Poe. But even the Army Corps has acknowledged that the Poe is in need of major upgrades and, as the Free Press has previously reported, delays and repairs at the locks have been more frequent in recent years.

Meanwhile, the Homeland Security report found that while the impacts of a six-month shutdown would be extreme, even a shorter one could have a wider impact than previously believed, with a shutdown at the Poe during the March 25-Jan. 15 shipping season halting as much as 75% of the nation’s steel output within two to six weeks.

A new lock is estimated to cost about $580 million. But concerns remain that the Army Corps, in re-evaluating the cost-to-benefit ratio of building a new lock, will balance those costs only against the direct impact of a failure at the Soo on Great Lakes shippers and not all the industries that rely on their shipments or the wider economy.

“We urge you to complete the Economic Re-evaluation Report as quickly as possible in order to begin the process of building a Poe-sized replacement lock. In producing this study, we also strongly encourage you to take into account the findings of the Homeland Security Department’s report,” Peters and Stabenow wrote.

Peters visited the Soo Locks earlier this month, touring the facilities and meeting with Army Corps officials; last year Stabenow visited the locks,  where she met with the Army Corps, Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection to discuss the need to build a replacement lock and other issues.


By:  Todd Spangler
Source: Detroit Free Press