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U.S. House approves authorization for replacement Soo Lock

Sep 14, 2018 08:42AM ● By Editor

Photos by Dale G. Young / The Detroit News

By Melissa Nann Burke of The Detroit News - September 13, 2018

Washington — The U.S. House voted Thursday to approve legislation including authorization for $922.4 million to build a large replacement lock at the Upper Peninsula's Soo Locks.

The water-infrastructure bill, which passed on a voice vote, next heads to the U.S. Senate, where its passage and the president's signature would be the first concrete step in decades toward building the new lock. 

Lawmakers said funding will still need to be appropriated next spending cycle.  

"This modernization project is long — as in decades — overdue," said Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, whose district includes the locks.

"We’ve accomplished more in the first 18 months of this session than was done in the last 18 years."

The progress is due in part to a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released this summer that recommended a 1,200-foot-long lock to mirror the 49-year-old Poe Lock at Sault Ste. Marie. 

The Army Corps provided an economic analysis that will allow the project to compete for construction funding, estimating the cost at $922 million at next year's pricing level, or $1 billion over the seven-year to 10-year construction period.

The Poe is the only one of the four aging locks owned and operated by the Army Corps in the Soo is big enough to handle the largest freighters that carry 89 percent of the cargo through the corridor.

An unexpected outage of the Poe could cause a bottleneck with a rippling disruption through the supply chain for steel production and, thus, manufacturing across the country.

Kevin Sprague Area Engineer for the Soo Locks looks

Kevin Sprague, Area Engineer for the Soo Locks looks over a satellite image of the St. Mary's River and the locks, as The News tours the Soo Locks and gets some behind-the-scenes looks at equipment and tunnels beneath the facility. (Photo: Dale G. Young, The Detroit News)

Republican Rep. Paul Mitchell said he helped push for the project's inclusion in the authorization bill as a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. 

"It’s an issue nationally in terms of the economy and national defense,” said Mitchell of Dryden. “Turns out it was authorized in 1986, and there’s been studies and discussion but nothing got done.”

He noted the findings of a 2015 Department of Homeland Security report that found no alternative transportation mode exists for getting iron ore from Minnesota mines to steel mills on the lower Great Lakes. 

The same study concluded the Poe Lock is a weak link in the North American industrial economy, and  an unplanned, six-month closure could plunge the U.S. economy into recession, costing up to 11 million jobs.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, who worked to include authorization in the Senate version of the bill, applauded Thursday's House vote. She and Bergman had co-sponsored a bill last year with the objective of authorizing the lock.

"The locks are vital to commerce in Michigan and our national defense," Stabenow said in a statement. "This is a significant step toward finally getting this done.”

Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, pledged to work with his colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee to fund the Soo Locks upgrade. 

"Today's legislation makes it crystal clear: President Trump, Republicans, and Democrats support a new lock in the Soo," he said.

The Soo project seemed to gain momentum following an April visit by President Donald Trump to Michigan, when Bergman, Mitchell and Moolenaar informed the president of the stalled upgrade during a car ride from Selfridge Air National Guard Base to a Macomb Township sports arena.

"The Soo Locks are going to hell," Trump later told the arena crowd. "You know that, right? And we’re going to get them fixed up."

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