Time to play the politics card

Restoration of the Soo Locks could be back on the US agenda. Credit: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 Restoration of the Soo Locks could be back on the US agenda. Credit: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

COMMENT: At one time, before today's mega ships and mega rail links, the harbour at New York was the entrepot for vessels moving cargo between America's heartland and the US East Coast, which linked to the rest of the world, writes Barry Parker.

Throughput moved to Lake Erie, which was linked to the downstate port by a lengthy barge canal, via the Hudson River. ‘Dry goods’ (manufactured items) could flow westward, with ‘Produce’ (agricultural output) flowing east to population centres. Historians identify this Canal as a historic public works project (organised by the State of New York) benefiting maritime commerce, with huge economic multipliers extending well beyond the waterway. As trades have shifted over time, a later project, the Saint Lawrence Seaway (which opened in 1959), is perhaps the modern day analogue of the Erie Canal.

Fast forward to the present and the US is now in the times of President Donald Trump and infrastructure. In a late April speech given in Michigan, at the locus of the Great Lakes region, President Trump talked in positive terms about work to restore the Soo Locks, a critical junction for movements of raw materials around the Lakes linked to the Atlantic Ocean via the Seaway.

This project was approved (I discovered after some research) in 1986 (yes, 30–plus years ago), but has languished for various reasons. Hopefully it can be jump-started.

The American Great Lakes Port Association (AGLPA), composed of members across eight States, including New York, explains: “The order of projects in the queue is based partially on merit, and partially on politics. For this reason, the President's focus on the project is critical. The project could languish in the queue for years, or it could be moved toward the front by the White House.”

A highly supportive letter to the White House, from Congressional representatives throughout the region (working across party lines), was made available by AGLPA. Its contents are worth noting briefly to perhaps provide guidance (although not an exact template, as geographies and projects differ) for other ports. In its letter to the President, the association said: “We believe this project is consistent with your commitments to rebuilding our nation's infrastructure, and feel that the Soo Locks can be a crowning achievement for this effort.”

As the 2018 mid-term election season starts to unfold, don't underestimate the criticality of port- and maritime-related projects, where their high economic multipliers may take on greater importance.

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