Great Lakes Ports’ Director outlines infrastructure priorities

New infrastructure investments will be needed to support U.S. Great Lakes ports and their expansion, says Steve Fisher, executive director, American Great Lakes Ports Association (AGLPA).

The ports are seeing an increase in shipments of wind turbine components, some expansion of container cargoes and continued shipments of steel products and exports of agricultural products.

At the same time, a May report in Maritime Exchange has noted new containership services at the Great Lakes ports of Duluth, Minnesota, and Cleveland, Ohio:

“The rise in fuel prices has prompted renewed interest in expanding container shipping at America’s Great Lakes ports, like Duluth and Cleveland. There is potential for Port of Duluth to develop containerized dry bulk agricultural exports to Europe, where growing numbers of customers are willing to take delivery of containers of agricultural produce.”

The report went on to explain: “The Port of Cleveland played an instrumental role in developing viable container shipping between Europe and the Great Lakes when it introduced a direct service to Antwerp. A comparatively small container ship of under 1,000 TEU has feasibly carried containers between Antwerp and Cleveland, with rates that compete with the alternative option - a mega-size container ship sailing to Port of Newark followed by high-cost railway connection to Cleveland. The Port of Duluth involves an even greater railway distance (1,250 miles), making direct Duluth – Europe container shipping potentially more attractive.”

Fisher was addressing the Propeller Club of Northern California’s Maritime Day panel on May 18th. He discussed “Infrastructure Priorities for Great Lakes Ports”

As background to the issue, he explained: “There are 16 deep-draft, navigation locks that a ship has to pass through to go from the Atlantic to Duluth, Minnesota.”

In his remarks, Fisher described progress on infrastructure upgrades of the Great Lakes ports.

Harbor Maintenance Funding

Fisher said that the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) has improved Harbor Maintenance funding for ports:

“That system is maintained through the Harbor Maintenance tax and the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund HMTF). The WRDA 2020 bill was a revolutionary bill that ensured that the Trust fund and its revenues are fully spent. The WRDA bill ensured that the $10 billion surplus was used to dredge and maintain our harbors.”

He added that there is a new requirement that as those Trust Fund “dollars flow out, no less than 13% of those goes into the Great Lakes every year. “

Port Maintenance

On maintenance requirements at Great Lakes Ports, Fisher said:

“We have a $930 million backlog of port maintenance, $405 million of that is dredging that needs to be done, which is backlogged through the harbors of the Great Lakes. About $300 million is for repair and replacement: there are a lot of navigation structures in the Great Lakes including jetties and breakwaters that needs to be done. And then the Soo locks require $225 million of maintenance work.”

Soo Lock Upgrades

The Sault Ste Marie Locks in Northern Michigan known as the ‘Soo Locks’ will require a $1.38 billion replacement: “The plan is to build a new 1,200-foot lock to replace two older Soo locks on the St. Mary’s River. The project has a $1.38 billion price tag that has been funded by the Infrastructure bill. The project is already under construction. We are hoping to look for a completed lock in 5-6 years. “

Ice Breaking on the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes ports are experiencing a shortfall in icebreaking during the winter months, which is slowing down maritime commerce: “The third infrastructure priority for us is ice breaking. The Great Lakes close for navigation during the winter from about January 15th to March 15th. To keep the shipping lanes open during the winter months requires a fleet of icebreaking vessels, operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. The ice breaking is needed in the months before the Great Lakes are shut and after they open when there is a great deal of ice. We have seen a decline in that fleet in the late 70s, we had 14 icebreakers and that has gone down to 9.”

A new icebreaker needs to be built and deployed. “Our industry is of the opinion that we need a new icebreaker. Congress has authorized the construction of a $350 million new icebreaker for the Great Lakes. We have been working with Congress to try and get that project funded.”

U.S. Coast Guard metrics for providing icebreaking services need to be improved: “We are also proposing legislation to establish performance metrics for the U.S. Coast Guard as it embarks on its icebreaking mission. This would require the Coast Guard to budget assets to meet those performance metrics. Our customers the steel industry, the ag industry, they need these waterways to remain open.”

MARAD’s Port Infrastructure Program

Fisher said the fourth infrastructure priority is the U.S. Maritime Administration’s (MARAD) Port Infrastructure Development Program, which is a brand-new program that started providing infrastructure funding to ports in 2019.

This program is long overdue: “Ports in the United States did not have a port focused program until then. It’s daunting that we did not demand something like this decades ago. The importance of this program is that we do not have to compete with highways, transit systems, airports, or any other mode of transportation. This grant program is just for ports.”

Under the Biden administration, funding for the program has increased: “This program was almost tripled in size by the Infrastructure bill. MARAD, I understand is getting a billion dollars a year in grant applications. And Congress was funding the program at only $300 million per year. The Infrastructure bill increased funding for the program by $680 million a year for the next five years. That should take care of the nation’s ports and infrastructure investments.”

Great Lakes ports “… have gotten over $90 million for projects across the region. Some of these were basic infrastructure such as renewing dock walls. This also included new projects such as a new grain-handling facility in Milwaukee, allowing the Port to considerably expand its grain exports.”

Coastal Resiliency

The fifth area of infrastructure is coastal resiliency: “We have the same resiliency problems as coastal ports in the United States. We have bad winter storms and big waves smashing into our infrastructure.”

Two examples were:

In 2020, the Port of Milwaukee “was completely flooded by a large storm.”

In 2017, “we had the Port of Oswego smashed up by a bad winter storm. The storm smashed the breakwater structure that had been in place for decades and giant waves passed through the walls and badly damaged warehouses.”

A new analysis by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will expedite coastal resiliency investments for Great Lakes Ports:

“And I am pleased to note that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has embarked on a comprehensive, region-wide, coastal resilience study. This will look at the entire shoreline of the Great Lakes. This will make recommendations for future products and future WRDAs to make improvements to shoreline infrastructure to make sure that we can harden that infrastructure to make sure its resilient for the future.”

Stas Margaronis
Stas Margaronis


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