The binational navigation infrastructure underpinning the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Maritime Transportation System (MTS) is critical to the system’s viability and global competitiveness. Moving hundreds of millions of goods and materials annually through the world’s largest deep-draft inland navigation system requires ongoing investment in physical structures, such as locks, piers and breakwaters; waterway maintenance, especially dredging; and services, such as pilotage, icebreaking and aids to navigation.

The natural processes of soil erosion and sedimentation in navigation channels and harbors require the removal of over three million cubic yards annually on the U.S. portion of the MTS alone to maintain fully authorized channel widths and depths. U.S. federal budget constraints in recent decades have resulted in reduced dredging operations by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and created a backlog of some 20 million cubic yards of sediments that need to be dredged from harbors and channels. U.S. legislation passed in 2014 directed steadily increased appropriations from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, with the goal of achieving appropriation of all annual revenues collected for the fund by 2025 (see Investment: Federal Infrastructure Investment Programs – U.S. Harbor Maintenance Tax and Fund). These increased appropriations have enabled the Corps of Engineers to begin reducing the dredging backlog in recent years.

Click here to learn more about the U.S. Harbor Maintenance Tax and Fund.

Developing the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River MTS in the 19th and 20th centuries involved significant engineering and construction efforts, particularly the building of locks to enable deep-draft navigation from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the head of the Great Lakes in Lake Superior, some 600 feet above sea level. These include the Soo Locks linking Lake Superior to the Lower Lakes; the Welland Canal’s eight locks to bypass Niagara Falls; and the St. Lawrence Seaway’s seven locks between Lake Ontario and Montreal. While the Regional Maritime Strategy points to the MTS as the backbone of the Great Lakes’ $5 trillion regional economy, it acknowledges that the system is aging, and that its infrastructure is due for a “recommitment by governments, users and stakeholders to face the challenges of the 21st century and to become a more strategic asset within broader regional efforts to enhance global competitiveness. Forward-thinking policies and investments are needed to achieve this future.”

Click here to learn more about investments in Soo Locks upgrade and rehabilitation.

Click here to learn more about the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation's Asset Renewal Program. 

Reliable ice-breaking services are critical to enabling the flow of cargo across the maritime transportation system during winter months. During winter months, severe ice-coverage on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway restricts maritime traffic across the system, resulting in delays and costs for vessels and companies. The U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards work together to provide ice breaking services on the Great Lakes. Along the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Canadian Coast Guard support winter navigation.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s current Great Lakes icebreaker fleet consists of nine vessels:

  • The Mackinaw, a 240-foot heavy icebreaker
  • six 140-foot icebreaking tugs
  • two 225-foot seagoing buoy tenders that have a light icebreaking capability

The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) plans to continue to deploy two icebreakers throughout the winter on the Great Lakes and through the Quebec sector for the Seaway in late March if required and if available. The CCG continually evaluates vessels deployments throughout the ice season.   Additional assets could be deployed depending on prevailing ice and traffic conditions, priorities and risks, and user needs. 

To improve ice-breaking services, the Regional Maritime Strategy recommends that:

  • Canadian government accelerate the building of new icebreakers;
  • The U.S. Coast Guard restores older icebreaking tug boats to improve their icebreaking capacity; and
  • A second icebreaking vessel similar to the Mackinaw cruiser to increase US icebreaking capacity

Click here to see U.S. and Canadian investments in icebreaking upgrades.