WASHINGTON, D.C.-A much-anticipated upgrade to the Soo Locks between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes appears well on the way to becoming reality.
On Wednesday, Oct. 10, the U.S. Senate passed America's Water Infrastructure Act of 2018. The bill, which will now go to President Donald Trump for his signature, would provide $922 million in funding for upgrades at the Soo, including a new lock to back up the Poe.
At present, the Poe Lock is the only structure in Sault Ste. Marie capable of handling the 1,000-plus-foot lakers that serve as the primary freight workhorses of the Great Lakes system. These vessels cannot fit through the smaller MacArthur Lock.
For years, people have fretted over what would become of maritime commerce if the Poe were ever knocked out of commission.
The new lock would create a measure of redundancy, allaying many of those fears.
The odds of Trump signing the bill into law appear good, to judge by his own words. During an April campaign rally in Washington Township, Mich., the president lamented the declining condition of the Soo Locks with age and pledged "to get them fixed up."
"It's an exciting piece of news to know that this legislation is finally headed to the president's desk," said Adele Yorde, director of public relations for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.
"The lock complex at Sault Ste. Marie is just such a critical piece of infrastructure. It is definitely past time to renew those assets," she said, calling the locks "the Achilles' heel" of the Great Lakes maritime system.
The Poe was built in 1896 and rebuilt in 1968 to accommodate larger lakers. Meanwhile, the MacArthur dates back to 1943. Yorde said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does an excellent job of maintaining the locks, but their advancing age has been a cause of growing concern.
The Soo Locks provide a crucial link between Lake Superior and the rest of the Great Lakes. They handle up to 80 million tons of cargo annually, and about 90 percent of that passes through the Poe.
"For the port of Duluth-Superior - and the ore docks in Two Harbors and Silver Bay for that matter - the Soo Locks are part of that steelmaking industry supply chain for North America. It's also a gateway for Midwestern grain exports and inbound shipments of project cargos and other commodities, like limestone, cement and salt," Yorde said.
James Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers Association, praised the Senate's action Wednesday and noted: "The American steel industry gets all its waterborne domestic iron ore through the Soo Locks."
Yorde said the locks are particularly important to Minnesota, which supplies about 85 percent of all the ore mined in the nation.
Weakley pointed to a Department of Homeland Security study that concluded if the Poe Lock went down for six months, domestic steel production would grind to a halt, and 11 million Americans would lose their jobs.
"A second Poe-sized lock is critical to our nation's economic well-being and national defense capabilities," he said.
Building the proposed new lock would be a massive undertaking that's expected to take seven years to complete. The project is anticipated to create about 15,000 jobs during the course of construction.
Yorde said she just hopes the Soo Locks will make it through that lengthy timeline without any hiccups.