Located 2,300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean at the western tip of Lake Superior, the Port of Duluth-Superior is the farthest-inland freshwater seaport in North America. As a result of its central location, Duluth-Superior serves as a vital connection point for transporting lumber, iron ore, grain, and other resources from the continent’s interior to industrial cities throughout the Great Lakes. An average of 38 million tons of cargo passes through the Port of Duluth-Superior every year, supporting 11,500 jobs. It is the largest port by cargo tonnage in the Great Lakes region and is informally known as the bulk cargo capital of the world.
The vital economic activity supported by the Port of Duluth-Superior depends on a narrow 100 foot wide channel of water that connects Lake Superior to Lake Huron and the rest of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway. Ships travelling from the Port of Duluth-Superior to Detroit, Chicago, Toledo, or Indiana Harbor must pass through this narrow passageway at the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
An average of 10,000 ships pass through the Soo Locks every year, but the locks are beginning to show signs of disrepair. Two of the four locks were built before 1920 and are either decommissioned or rarely used. Of the remaining two locks, only one, the Poe Lock, is wide enough to accommodate 1000-foot cargo freighter
The Poe Lock is nearly 50 years old. If it were to shut down, it would send ripples throughout the U.S. economy. The disruption of the iron ore supply chain alone would impact up to 75 percent of U.S. steel production, which would impact the automobile, construction, and energy industries. A 2015 Department of Homeland Security report warns that the failure of the Poe Lock could cause up to 10 million U.S. jobs to be lost and trigger a recession. Recognizing the risks of inaction, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has pushed Congress to fund a $580 million project to widen the 100-year-old Sabin Lock to serve as a companion to the Poe Lock.
But it’s not just the Soo Locks. Infrastructure throughout the Great Lakes is in dire need of repair.
The Soo Locks are part of the Great Lakes Navigation System (GLNS), a series of channels, locks, dams, ports, and open water that provide passage for millions of passengers and 240 million tons of cargo annually. Much of the GLNS is beginning to age and is in need of investment. More than 100 miles of navigation structures, such as breakwaters and piers, protect 117 harbors and ports in the Great Lakes from the damaging effects of ice and waves. However, 80 percent of these navigation structures are at least 50 years old, and structural repair work for many is long overdue. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) maintains a prioritized list of navigational structures in need of repair, but funding for such projects is limited.
In addition, the shipping capacity of many Great Lakes ports and harbors has decreased due to the buildup of lake sediment, which must be continuously removed through dredging to maintain port functionality. USACE estimates that $40 million is required annually to fund dredging projects in the Great Lakes region, on top of $200 million required to fund a current backlog of dredging requests. Without dredging, large ships must carry less cargo to avoid running aground.
Investments in the GLNS have the potential to increase the competitiveness of American resources such as grain and iron while reducing congestion on U.S. rail and highway systems. Maritime commerce on the Great Lakes saves the U.S. economy $3.6 billion annually by reducing congestion on costly land transportation networks, including truck and rail. The GLNS transports 145 million tons of cargo each year and supports 128,000 American jobs. Investments in GLNS infrastructure will help the longevity of this crucial economic engine.
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.