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Construction of new U.S. Soo lock begins in 2019

30-year wait to start massive marine infrastructure project
Soo Locks Poe Lock
A 1,000-foot freighter enters the Poe Lock at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. (US Army Corps of Engineers Facebook photo)

Construction of new navigational super-sized lock at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. will begin in 2019.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the operators of the canal, released its work plan for the 2019 fiscal year on Nov. 21.

The corps has allocated US$32 million for the design and start of construction on a new lock, capable of handling the largest freighters on the Great Lakes. More funding will be rolled out as construction continues over the next 10 years.

Only two of the four locks at the American canal are currently operational. One of the locks can accommodate the largest ships transiting between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, a vital North American iron ore and grain shipping corridor.

The existing Poe Lock, opened nearly 50 years ago, carries more than 90 per cent of all marine cargoes on this waterway. Its failure for any length of time would be catastrophic to the American manufacturing supply chain on the lower lakes.

The project was first authorized in 1986 but stalled over the next three decades.

“This is the moment we have been waiting for more than 30 years,” said Jim Weakley, president of the Cleveland-based Lake Carriers’ Association.

“The announcement by the Army Corps’ that the construction program for the new lock at the Soo will officially begin is the direct result of the tireless efforts of so many people and organizations banding together to update one of the most critical pieces of American infrastructure. It is a great day for Michigan, the Great Lakes region, and the entire nation. We are elated.”

Besides the new lock work, the upstream channel on the St. Mary’s River must be deepened and new approach walls must be built.

“Money added by Congress and the Corps over the last decade has been used for rehabilitation of the existing locks and for some preliminary construction for the new lock, but this is the first time the Corps has funded construction on its own,” Weakley said.

A supportive Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is ready to pitch in an additional $52 million in state funds for the project.

“Combining the Michigan funds with the work plan money in 2019 can cut construction time by a year and save the American taxpayer $30 million on the overall cost of $922 million,” added Weakley.

According to the 2018 study by Martin Associates on the economic impacts of vessel traffic moving through the existing locks, over 123,000 jobs are reliant on the locks which in turn supports $22.5 billion in economic activity.

A Department of Homeland Security study determined that a six-month outage of the Poe Lock would put 11 million Americans out of work.