Provincial and state leaders float Great Lakes shipping plan

A US$3.8-billion investment would increase capacity and kick-start economic development

The Soo Locks between Lake Superior and the St. Marys River.

Provinces and states bordering the Great Lakes say there’s a need to boost shipping on the waterway — now they just have to convince the feds on both sides of the border.

They’re boosting a US$3.8-billion plan which will require at least 10 years of construction, dredging and regulatory harmonization to implement, much of which Washington and Ottawa would have to pay for. They also need to designate an agency with overall responsibility for the functioning of the waterway.

The improvements would double the amount of cargo moving through the St. Lawrence Seaway-Great Lakes system.

Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan and Premier Kathleen Wynne of Ontario, who released the plan on behalf of the other Great Lakes governors and premiers say the plan will boost the region’s US$5-trillion economy and create jobs on both sides of the border.

The plan drew cautious praise from the shipping industry. It doesn’t fully recognize the importance of the freight moved through the waterway by ocean-going vessels, said Sonia Simard, director of policy and government affairs for the Shipping Federation of Canada, which represents ocean-going fleets that trade in the Great Lakes.

“We believe that the diversity of this traffic and the importance of this trade for the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River region should be more explicitly acknowledged in the document, considering the geographical scope of this proposed strategy,” she notes.

The need for regulatory harmonization between the U.S. and Canada is essential to improving the efficiency and competitiveness of the seaway-Great Lakes, she pointed out. The current system creates a patchwork of regulatory demands and “results in increased administrative and operational costs,” she adds.

The departments and agencies of both countries should harmonize their processes and share data with respect to certification and inspection, she said.

“One example of such streamlining could be the application of a single clearance process by the Canadian and U.S. authorities of marine shipments transiting the region,” Simard said.

Streamlining of pilotage services and the renewal of icebreaking fleets are also essential.

Glen Nekvasil, vice-president of the U.S. Lake Carriers Association, applauded calls in the plan to create a second lock between lakes Superior and Huron and to dredge the St. Marys River between lakes Huron and Ontario as well as other infrastructure improvements to keep shipping on the lakes safe and efficient. Dredging the St. Marys River to its authorized depth of eight metres creates political controversy over declining water levels. The river is considered a “critical choke point” in the waterway.

The need for a second lock to supplement the existing two locks between Superior and Huron was highlighted last summer during a 19-day closure, Nekvasil said.

Mark Fisher, CEO of the Council of the Great Lakes Region, which represents shipping and other maritime groups, said, “A potential disappointment with this plan is that it didn’t go far enough. Given the importance of the seaway to the regional economy, anything we can do to find solutions to increasing the use and the value of the maritime system is beneficial to everybody.”

Shipping in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway supports 227,000 jobs and creates more than US$33 billion in business revenue, says a report commissioned by the Chamber of Maritime Commerce.

Larisa Fenn, spokeswoman for the Port of Hamilton, Ont., said, “We were pleased to see the plan champion the idea of ports as job-creating development nodes, understanding how ports serve as fertile ground for the development of industry clusters.

“We would love to see Ontario preserve space for transportation-intensive industrial development within port zones, ensuring the flexibility to integrate a range of industrial and ancillary services within these zones. This will translate into future prosperity for Ontario by supporting key growth sectors like advanced manufacturing, construction and agri-food.”

Dredging is also needed in many American harbours and rivers, the plan notes. Mike Piskur, a spokesman for the Council of Great Lakes Governors and Premiers, says shipping doesn’t get the attention it should, considering its economic importance to the region, calling it an “underutilized asset.”

“Probably over the last 10-plus years, in state or provincial freight plans, maritime, if it was mentioned at all, it was in passing,” he said.

Attention also has to be paid to the road and rail links to the Great Lakes ports, the plan states.

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