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Canada accused of dragging its feet over funding (7/03)

By IAN ROSS A co-operation agreement between Canada and the U.S. to conduct a transportation review of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway is lean on financial details from Ottawa, says a Thunder Bay port manager.

A co-operation agreement between Canada and the U.S. to conduct a transportation review of the Great Lakes-St.
Lawrence Seaway is lean on financial details from Ottawa, says a Thunder Bay port manager.

The bi-national study effort is being initiated to evaluate the socio-economic impacts of operating and maintaining the existing Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway.

The memorandum of co-operation (MOC) signed May 1 between Transport Canada and the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will study the socio-economic impacts by examining the
existing navigation system stretching from Duluth, Minnesota on Lake Superior to the Port of Montreal.

"The infrastructure is not getting any younger and we know in the (near) future there will be some investment made to maintain it," says Marc Fortin, Transport Canada's director of seaway and domestic shipping policy.

Fortin calls the joint Canada-U.S. participation a "sub-study" and "sub-assessment" of the current system, which is proceeding on a "case-by-case" basis to evaluats the future needs of the Seaway. The 30-month study should provide data on the environment, engineering features and economic conditions of the waterway. Stakeholder comment will be invited.

While the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which will provide the core expertise for this review, has received $1.5 million (US) from Congress for their end of the study, Fortin could not provide any dollar figures on Transport Canada's contribution, saying only the department will be using "resources allocated from within."

"The MOC is not calling for expenditures," says Fortin. "We didn't take the same approach to allocate x-amount of dollars for this. We are at a very early stage" and have not attached a dollar figure to this.

Dennis Johnson, CEO of the Thunder Bay Port Authority, who was not aware a co-operation agreement had been signed until notified by Northern Ontario Business, expressed disappointment there was no stated financial outlay on Canada's part.

"I'd like to have more detail about what the financial commitment is. Certainly the Americans were looking for a financial commitment and Canada was thinking about it, but still haven't announced one.

"Until I see a bit more detail, it's pretty general and vague."

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway system provides a continous 27-foot depth over the 3,800-kilometre length of the waterway moving 200 million tons of commerce worth an estimated $12 billion (US) through the system annually. But the maximum size of ocean-going vessels transiting the system is limited to those 740 feet in length (225.5 metres) with a 78-foot beam (23.7 metres).

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who maintain American canals and port facilities on the Great Lakes, many locks, channels and system infrastructure are more than 70 years old and need modernization.

Many leaders within the Great Lakes industry, particularly American shippers and port authority managers, want
upgrades to accommodate larger and deeper draft ocean-going vessels as a way to induce more traffic in the system.

Of the 15 seaway system locks extending from Lake Erie to Montreal, only two are American-operated with management divided between two authorities, the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. (Canada) and the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. (US).

There have been no major physical upgrades in that stretch of the system since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates four toll-free locks at Sault Ste. Marie between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Their last major upgrade was the opening of the Sault's Poe Lock in 1968, which paved the way for the introduction of the monstorous 1,000-foot bulk freighters.

Furthermore, the U.S. Congress has authorized the construction of a $225-million superlock at the Sault. Though dredging operations are underway, construction has been hampered by foot-dragging over a cost-sharing agreement between six American states and the Canadian government which stand to benefit.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commissioned a preliminary draft "reconnaisance study" in July 2002 giving a broad perspective of the Great Lakes System in suggesting what it would take to revitalize it, including deepening lock and channel dimensions. The Corps of Engineers has been lobbying Transport Canada to participate in a larger feasibility and engineering study of the entire system.

"We're probably looking at improvements made from within the current structure," says Fortin, not any massive upgrades. The key issues will be examining future requirements, the type of traffic anticipated for the future, and exploring potential markets around the current system.

"Major expansion is not the driving force of this study," says Fortin, since existing vessel traffic is not even using 50 per cent of the system's capacity.

Feedback received from shippers indicates there is not a "large appetite" for any huge public works project, but rather in simply maintaining a system that is efficient, accessible and provides no obstacles to running their business.

One controversial subject on the table is possibly extending the length of the Great Lakes shipping season " weather permitting " by one or two weeks at the beginning or end of the year, an issue that rankles many environmental groups.

Fortin says there is nothing on the horizon to suggest any massive multibillion-dollar upgrades to the seaway are in the offing.

Johnson agrees there is no question the seaway system is being underutilized. Vessel passages through the Port of Thunder Bay are off 50 per cent, roughly down to 500 vessels from 1000 a decade ago.

Grain tonnages in 2002 were 5.7 million tonnes, "our lowest ever," compared with the 17.7 million in 1983 and 1984, says Johnson. Traditional grain customers such as the old Soviet Union and Europe are gone and any new customers in Asia are being served by West Coast ports, he says.

Johnson says adding two feet of depth throughout the entire seaway would satisfy shippers, but would represent a major financial expenditure for Ottawa. Ocean commerce is larger and saltwater ships are too wide for the existing seaway locks, and the pool of saltwater ships capable of navigating the seaway is getting smaller.

"(Deeper channels and harbours) would allow us bigger cargoes. Instead of shipping 25,000 metric tonnes of grain at a time (per vessel), we could go 28,000 or 29,000 tonnes and that would be good for the port."

Johnson was unsure if deeper channels and harbours would introduce new and more lucrative cargoes such as
container traffic to the Great Lakes, "but it would make existing cargoes more efficient and viable."