The importance of the Soo Locks to the nation’s shipping and security has been in the news a lot lately.
In 1988, I was working for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and helped develop a comprehensive Soo Locks analysis called “Connecting Channels,” specifically drafting the chapter relating to the Locks’ critical role in America’s national security. Almost 30 years later, the Soo Locks remain vital, but have yet to be updated.
The Soo Locks opened in 1855 and have been used by everyone from Native Americans, French explorers and fur traders to today’s massive Great Lakes freighters. The Locks now account for the transportation of 90 percent of the world’s iron ore, as well as, tons and tons of stone, coal, cement, grain and other cargoes. Over 60 million tons, and more than 3,000 freighters pass through the locks annually.
Virtually everybody agrees that the Soo Locks are vital to the nation’s security. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that closing the Poe lock alone, one of four locks (only two of which are operable) at the Soo, would likely cause a complete shutdown of Great Lakes steel production and ultimately cost 11 million jobs, most of them in Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. Therein lies the national security concern.
Those in the know agree that the locks are in desperate need of updating, including the need for a second large lock capable of handling the 1,000 foot cargo ships now traversing the Great Lakes.
The Mid America Association of State Transportation Officials representing 10 Great Lakes states officially petitioned Congress last month to fund the construction of this new lock. Even President Trump weighed in when he promised in a recent speech in Washington Township that the Locks will be fixed.
Congress authorized construction of a new lock in 1986 and authorized full federal funding in 2007 but still hasn’t authorized the estimated $600 million to fund construction of the lock. The pressure is building to get the job done and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the people who will have to manage the process, are being pushed to speed it up.
Getting the job done won’t be a walk in the park. Some experts suggest it could take as long as 10 years and cost as much as $1 billion. To give you some idea of the difficulty of the undertaking, the bedrock at the locks is Jacobsville sandstone, a reddish stone that is up to 1,000-feet thick. Imagine drilling into that underwater mass just to be able to understand the construction needs.
My current company, G2 Consulting Group, specializes in the types of geotechnical engineering skills that will be required to get the job done. We’ve been doing it for 22 years in over 35 states. Our experience includes harbors and rivers, bridges, arenas, skyscrapers, highways, and more. Obviously we’d like to participate on the Soo project, too, but regardless of who wins the work, the job clearly needs to be done – the country’s commerce, our jobs and our security depend on it.