For U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, Wednesday’s departure from the Duluth harbor aboard the Roger Blough was a precursor to a homecoming of sorts in Sault Ste. Marie.
Stauber went to Lake Superior State University there, playing hockey and living in a dorm overlooking the Soo Locks.
“In the springtime those lakers were backed up three and four deep coming to the Soo Locks,” Stauber said during a press event at the Canadian National Railway's ore docks in Duluth. “There was pride in me, because I knew it was the men and women on the Iron Range who made those pellets.”
Stauber, R-Hermantown, and Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., boarded the Blough on an idyllic day. They were sailing Lake Superior to highlight what they and other speakers described as the “critical” importance of the Soo Locks — the aging infrastructure that allows vessels to travel from Lake Superior to the rest of the Great Lakes.
Bergman called it a “30-hour education” to deepen their understanding of the iron ore and shipping industries. Modernizing the locks, including the addition of a new 1,200-foot lock, is considered to be vital for the economy and national security, given that 90 percent of domestic iron ore traverses the locks.
“It’s been over three decades we’ve talked about this,” Bergman said. “But the bureaucracy and politics kept getting in the way. They were never able to bring it to fruition.”
Stauber and Bergman have both spent time with President Donald Trump, appealing for funding that was approved this year for the estimated $1 billion construction of a new lock. They credited the president for listening.
But approval is not appropriation. It’s now incumbent on federal lawmakers to dedicate funds to the project. Timely appropriations could mean construction of a new lock is completed by 2027. Delays would mean escalating costs, and risk failures at the Soo Locks.
“By passing legislation for a (new) lock, Congress opened the checking account for $1 billion,” Deb DeLuca, Duluth Seaway Port Authority executive director, said. “Funds need to be placed into that checking account each year.”
The congressmen were flanked by a host of other industry and political speakers, dock workers and union tradespeople.
One of them, Dan Olson, described the pinch point that is the Soo Locks.
“The Twin Ports are a cul-de-sac,” Olson, business manager for Laborers' Local 1091, said. “If nothing works on the east end of the lake, nothing comes to the west end. There’d be no way to get here.”
Multiple industry and governmental reports in recent years have sounded the alarm of a possible failure at the Soo Locks. Up to 11 million workers across industries could lose their jobs were there to be a catastrophic failure at the locks. As it is, the 51-year-old Poe Lock, the largest of two locks that receives up to 70 percent of the traffic, has been experiencing more and more in-season emergency shutdowns, including one in August.
“That was unheard of five years ago," DeLuca said.
Stauber is a member of the House of Representatives transportation and infrastructure committee. He and Bergman both said they’d prioritize funding for the locks.
“I am incredibly excited to see this critical piece of infrastructure in action,” Stauber said. “The Soo Locks are absolutely imperative to our national and economic security.”