U.S. House of Representatives gives Corps marching orders: finish Soo Lock cost/benefit study

The Soo Locks’ critical role in the national defense of the United States has prompted the U.S. House of Representatives to direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to accelerate its project to build a second Poe-sized lock at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The Committee on Armed Service’s report on the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019 (HR5515), which passed the House May 24 by an overwhelming majority of 351-66, “urges the Commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and all involved executive branch agencies to expedite necessary reviews, analysis and approvals in order to speed the required upgrades at the Soo Locks.”

The committee report notes the Soo Locks are the only waterway connection from Lake Superior to the Lower Great Lakes and expresses “concern that of the two current operational locks, only the Poe Lock is large enough to accommodate the 1,000-foot carriers necessary to transport a majority of the iron ore used in domestic steel production … [That] lock is at the end of its 50-year useful lifespan….”

Steel is the backbone of national defense and the committee report emphasizes that “a failure at the Soo Locks would have drastic impacts on national security, in that the United States iron mining-integrated steel production-manufacturing supply chain is dependent on the Soo Locks, and there is no redundancy. Indeed, such a failure would cripple steel production that is used for national defense priorities.”

In 2017, the Poe Lock handled virtually all of the 39 million tons of iron ore passing through the Soo Locks destined for American steelmakers.

Congress authorized construction of a second Poe-sized lock in 1986, but the project stalled due to an inaccurate Corps estimate of its benefits. The Corps has acknowledged that the initial benefits estimate was based on the false premise that the railroads could move the cargo stranded by a failure of the lock and is recalculating it. An Economic Reevaluation Report is expected soon and the updated benefits estimate should enable the project to be funded.

Maritime Editorial