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Soo Locks are just one of many fragile Great Lakes bottlenecks

The Soo Locks are one of many fragile, vulnerable bottlenecks connecting the upper Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway. Image credit: Associated Press
Date Posted: July 14, 2021

Earlier this year the world got a cold, hard lesson in the fragility of global transportation when the Ever Given dug its snout into the Sinai sands and splayed cockeyed across the Suez Canal, plugging it for a what ended up being a very long week. The resulting snarl of international shipping has had repercussions worldwide and the whole mess should be studied long and hard by those responsible for keeping things flowing.

Closer to home, the Great Lakes basin is full of equally fragile bottlenecks for all modes of transportation. Our freshwater affections run so deep we forgive them at every turn, but from a regional transportation perspective Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario and Superior make getting around this part of the world a real pain in the keester.

Our peninsulas are pleasant indeed, but they also make us the very definition of out-of-the-way. The closest we come to pass-through territory is I-94 connecting Chicago and Detroit. Getting anywhere north of there requires extra effort, extra time, extra money and extraordinary feats of engineering.

Transportation infrastructure is important everywhere, but you’d be hard pressed to finger on the map another part of the U.S. with more conspicuous “special needs” in that department than Michigan. Our roads indeed stink, but that’s just the start of it.

In three spots we’re linked to our no. 1 international trading partner and all-around good neighbor Canada with narrow, frail bridges: Detroit, Port Huron and Sault Ste. Marie. All three also host rail connections. But there’s no rail across the Straits of Mackinac; our beloved bridge is for SUVs and campers only, and Line 5 isn’t wide enough for trains.

By now you all know I grew up in Ludington, once home to a proud fleet of giant ferries that shuttled railroad cars across Lake Michigan to various Wisconsin ports. For most of the 20th century that was an efficient solution, but the vagaries of industry, trade and transportation shaved that efficiency down to a nub. Now only one of our classic ferries still sails The Big Lake, ferrying only tourists and RVs between Ludington and Manitowoc — not a tank car, hopper or boxcar in sight.

Enjoying more secure longevity in their role are the bulk carriers that move iron ore, coal, grain, limestone and salt between gritty ports on all five Great Lakes. Their numbers have shrunk with the profile of American manufacturing itself, but their circuits connecting Duluth and Gary and Detroit and Cleveland keep our steel and auto industries rolling.

Barring the thousands of recreational vessels swarming like so many blackflies, freighters largely have the lakes to themselves. But just like our terrestrial modes of transportation, they must squeeze through a handful of inconvenient bottlenecks. The Soo Locks may be the most conspicuously fragile of those links, but remember there’s no getting to Hamilton, Ontario (Canada’s biggest steel town) without the Welland Canal, another delicate waterway with lots of moving parts. And speaking of moving parts, don’t forget the seven locks along the St. Lawrence between eastern Lake Ontario and the open waters of the North Atlantic.

Lastly, and bringing us full circle: From the bridge of a 1,000-foot freighter the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers are neither wide nor deep. Both are tight squeezes and only a couple months before the Ever Given constipated global trade by plugging the Suez, a similarly hapless boat called the Harvest Spirit ran around in the Livingstone Channel, halting traffic through that needle’s eye for days.

Livingstone is one of two shipping lanes in the lower Detroit River. The other one’s smaller and shallower; all require regular dredging to keep them open.

Who else hears a clock ticking?


Question #1: With Congress is likely to debate infrastructure legislation this year, how should our locks and dams be prioritized?

  • All infrastructure in Michigan should be highly prioritized, not just dams and locks. (Maple River Rowdies; Clinton County)
  • We believe that the Soo Locks should continue to be funded. You only need to know what happen with the recent blockage at the Suez Canal to realize how important it is to have an additional large lock. (Kirk’s Farm Bureau Group; Livingston County)
  • With the importance of the locks and the cost of the dam failures near Midland, we would think they are very important both locally and nationally. (Happy Harvesters; Macomb County)
  • Just looking at the numbers should tell anyone of the importance of the locks and dams in this country, especially the Soo Locks in Michigan. Most of the locks and dams are far more than tourist attractions. (Golden Fawn CAG; Huron County)

Question #2: What role do waterways play in helping us remain competitive in a global economy?

  • Waterways play a huge part in remaining competitive in a global economy, as outlined in the discussion topic article. (Maple River Rowdies; Clinton County)
  • Waterways play an enormous role in helping us remain competitive in the global market. It takes a lot of semi-trucks to compete with one boat. (Kirk’s Farm Bureau Group; Livingston County)
  • The economical importance of water transportation to our state with the Great Lakes is huge. (Happy Harvesters; Macomb County)
  • The waterways by far are the cheapest means of transporting any products. Take iron ore for instance, iron ore is so critical to the economy that’s it’s difficult to put a price on the value of our Soo Locks. (Golden Fawn CAG; Huron County)

Question #3: What other policy goals could we see with these efficiencies? Climate change? An improved rail network?

  • In comparison to water, rail is too expensive to construct and other forms such as trucks etc. are too expensive to operate. (Happy Harvesters; Macomb County)
  • Even with steps taken to control climate change, whatever is covered under that or to improve our rail network (which, by the way, has been let go to the point of no return), it would seem to be money well spent to redo the locks and dams because of the volume they carry. (Golden Fawn CAG; Huron County)