Great Lakes shipping executives float Soo Locks funding ask in St. Paul

ST. PAUL — U.S. and International steamship executives, Great Lakes port authority directors and development officials on Tuesday, Oct. 22, traveled to the Minnesota Capitol to highlight the economic value of shipping on the Great Lakes.

In visits with lawmakers, economic development, transportation and pollution control commissioners as well as with Gov. Tim Walz, the coalition made the case that seaway shipping has a $1.4 billion economic impact for the state and should be top of mind as state officials weigh policy and state funding decisions.

The visit comes as Great Lakes seaway shipping industry advocates make the case at the federal level that Congress and President Donald Trump should approve funding for a new Soo Lock in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The locks connect Lake Superior with the other Great Lakes and allow cargo ships to travel between.

Congress has indicated early support for $75.3 million in funding for the $1 billion project aimed at adding a second lock to accommodate larger carriers that haul iron ore. And the advocates noted Tuesday that Michigan had made a $52 million contribution to the project.

“We’re not here to lobby for money for the Soo; we’re here to inform about how important the Soo is,” Craig Middlebrook, deputy administrator at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., said.

While they didn’t ask for additional funding directly, the directors and carriers said additional funding could help finish the lock’s construction earlier than the seven-year projected time table. And that could mitigate potential lock failures, they said.

Carriers that operate in the Great Lakes emphasized the potential impact of the existing Soo Lock failing. An industry group representing steamship companies has more directly asked states and other stakeholders to chip in to finish the project earlier than projected.

“If that Soo Lock goes down, we have an economic recession greater than ’08-’09 that you can’t fiscally stimulate your way out of,” Mark Barker, president of the Interlake Steamship Co., said. “If we do not have the Soo Locks, the Minnesota Iron Range becomes landlocked.”

Deborah DeLuca, Duluth Seaway Port Authority executive director, also stressed the value of Minnesota’s ports ahead of a meeting with Walz. More than 30 million metric tons of cargo were transported from the ports last year, of which, 21.5 million tons was iron ore.

“It’s incredibly important to the economics of the region, and we cannot state the criticality of the port and all the Minnesota ports to the steelmaking supply chain,” DeLuca said.

The Minnesota Legislature is set to take up more than $5.3 billion in requests for public projects that could receive state funding through bond sales next year. It’s unclear if they would consider a project in another state that has an economic benefit to Minnesota as part of that discussion. Lawmakers are set to return to St. Paul for the 2020 legislative session on Feb. 11.

SOURCE: Duluth News-Tribune