The Soo Locks aren’t getting any younger, so they’re aiming to keep up with the times. This summer, they’ll be receiving a computer system upgrade.
Jim Peach, an assistant engineer at the locks, told The Detroit News that the upgrade is keeping in line with the “general direction of the industry – everything is getting more digital and automated.”
The computer upgrades are also a preventative measure to stave off failure of the aging lock system. New control panels will be installed in the lockmaster’s tower and a pier-side shelter. They’ll be funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ $31 million annual operating budget for the Soo Locks.
Two of the four locks are being used, and there has been rumbling in the Senate recently about refashioning one of the defunct locks into a new, 1200-ft long lane to ease strain on the Poe, the Locks’ largest and busiest lane. Concerns are mounting that a failure of the Poe, now almost 50 years old, could mean a devastating blow to North American economies. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security mounted a report which claims America would be “plunged into recession” if the Locks were to suffer major failure. The report cites up to 11 million jobs lost if such a failure should occur.
Built in 1968, the Poe Lock handles up to 70% of the marine traffic flowing through the locks annually. With aid from a small lock on the Canadian side, the MacArthur Lock, built in 1943, accommodates smaller ships and boats, fielding less traffic. The shipping season runs 10 months long, and for 19 days in the middle of last year’s season, the MacArthur lock was closed to repair a broken gate.
The need for a third functional lock became immediately apparent.
The remaining locks are either being lightly used, or closed completely. The Davis Lock, built in 1918, is rarely used because most of the Lock staff don’t know how to use it. And the Sabin Lock, built in 1919, is decommissioned. The $580 million proposal for a third, Poe-sized lock would see the Sabin widened from 80-ft to 110-ft. The Davis Lock would be filled with concrete rubble.
The benefits of a new, revamped lock are being lauded by politicians and business interests around the Great Lakes. If the Sabin is transformed, shipping traffic could potentially increase. In addition, the Poe could be closed for maintenance during shipping season without causing major shipping delays.
The Detroit News provided an infographic to give readers an impression of the Soo Locks’ history and proposed future.