Summary of the challenges and opportunities for growing the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway Navigation System
Congress faces infrastructure funding decisions that would support shipping on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway (GLSLS). Decisions need to be made on funding harbor maintained for both small ports and Great Lakes ports. Also on the horizon is a debate over construction of a spare, parallel lock at Sault Ste. Marie, MI, to provide redundancy in case the existing lock should need to close for emergency repairs. Some Members of Congress also seek funding for the construction of a second Coast Guard heavy icebreaker vessel for the Great Lakes. A new lock and a new icebreaker would likely cost several hundred million dollars and take several years to construct.
These funding decisions concerning the GLSLS come at a time when the system’s traffic base is eroding. There are reasons to think this trend will continue. It is largely the result of technological changes in manufacturing and transportation, as well as the globalization of production—factors beyond the scope of infrastructure funding. Moreover, federal funds for harbor maintenance are derived from cargo taxes predominantly paid by shippers using coastal ports, not Great Lakes ports. Coastal ports, especially those experiencing steady increases in cargo volume, wish to retain more of the cargo taxes they generate for their own infrastructure needs. In light of these pending funding decisions, this report examines in more detail the reasons for the GLSLS system’s cargo decline, prospects for attracting more cargo, and current and alternative approaches to financing the system’s capital needs.