The fifth of six stops in the URC Infrastructure Innovation Tour, the Sault Ste Marie roundtable convened a discussion with legislators, business leaders and URC experts on emerging challenges with maritime shipping, updates planned for the Soo Locks–the largest waterway traffic system on earth–and the research underway to meet these challenges.

Launched after publishing Foundation for the Future: URC Contributions to Infrastructure Improvement, this tour is built to continue conversations about infrastructure needs, promote innovation and foster future collaboration.

Tour Coverage & Content

Our host, Dr. Rodney S. Hanley, president of LSSU provided a warm welcome, and keynote speakers set the stage for a robust dialogue among elected officials, economic development officials, industry leaders, university researchers, transportation officials and community partners.

Dr. Kevin L. Kapuscinski, Assistant Professor at LSSU, kicked off the discussion by sharing information about their fishery education program and world-class fishery in the St. Mary’s River, and a new Freshwater Center, slated to open in 2020. The Center’s capabilities will include a wet lab, contaminants and research lab, and K-12 and community spaces.



Dr. Kapuscinski emphasized the importance of gaining a greater understanding of potential environmental impacts to mitigate long-term economic challenges to maritime trade through the Soo Locks. These issues include management of groundings and spills, which happen seven to eight times a year in local waterways, and invasive species (the Great Lakes already has 180 non-native species). Other challenges include ice cover dynamics and break-up impacts, and surges from freighters, which have been observed in wetlands two miles from the river. Understanding how wildlife, property, and water routes are impacted by change helps make better decisions.

Dr. Jennifer Read, Water Center Director at the University of Michigan, framed the interests of different sectors as interconnected systems: each are concerned about the Soo Locks and surrounding region. Dr. Read suggested sharing information across borders, institutions and private groups to explore and mitigate unintended consequences.

Economic issues related to the construction of the new lock was a priority topic for dialogue participants. Larry Karnes, Freight Policy Specialist at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) provided details on the importance of the new lock to increase efficiency and reliability. The new lock would offer more capacity with less waiting for use of a single lock space, but traffic volume is not expected to increase.

Economic Development Corporation Director Jeff Holt noted that new lock construction provides good news and bad news: In a region experiencing a housing shortage, an influx of construction workers – which could nearly double the current Sault Ste. Marie population — presents a challenge. He shared community concerns about how construction will impact local tourism and visitor lodging during and after construction as well.


Economic development officials in the region are interested in identifying construction job opportunities for locals. Dr. Shawnee Vickery, the Demmer Endowed Professor of Business Transformation at Michigan State University, suggested working with local partners to further grow and share an audit of skill capabilities in the community. This could help general contractors make these critical hiring decisions. 

LSSU President Hanley shared that the university is considering campus and community impacts to housing as well. He elevated a concern for social justice: a project of this size could either exacerbate or improve existing inequalities. Building the local employment base to support the project is an important piece in the planning for the project.

Lt. Col. Dennis Sugrue, former Commander of the Detroit Region of the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), cautioned that both U.S. and Canadian sides of Sault Ste. Marie will need to coordinate to successfully pull off the construction, suggesting the USACE consider a temporary basecamp for construction. The local experts confirmed that the USACE has been a good partner thus far.

City Commissioner Don Gerrie expressed a shared objective – the need to “do it right” with the lock construction because of its widespread impact across the Midwest. This sentiment was echoed across participants.

The new lock could provide opportunities for green infrastructure and recreation with waterfront reconstruction. Elliott Nelson, Michigan Sea Grant Educator with MSU Extension, cautioned that plans need to anticipate variability in precipitation, water levels, and temperatures, particularly as related to climate change. The new lock and waterfront redevelopment need to be resilient and adaptable to climate crisis.

Lt. Col. Sugrue suggested the development of the new lock is an opportunity to test new innovative technologies. He challenged URC experts to have a presence on the lock design team. Dr. John Verboncoeur, Associate Dean at MSU, urged working with URC institutions to get help in collecting much-needed hard data. He outlined ways sensor installation would be beneficial, helping to “do it right” at a minimal cost.

Using sensors, Soo Locks managers could detect failure with greater accuracy, and have better data to manage maintenance, moving to a less expensive, just-in-time model for parts like bearings and pumps. Similar sensors embedded in the Mackinac Bridge increase performance and allow for improved maintenance and care. Maritime shipping automation and mobility activities such as cargo offloads, exchanges, and route timing function better with more data. All three URC universities have expertise in sensor technologies for improving infrastructure.

As construction for the new lock gets underway, Dr. Read emphasized that working together and considering all concerns within this complex and interconnected system will yield meaningful research and policy development. To this, the participants expressed interest in continuing the dialogue.

University Research Corridor Experts Discuss Maritime Trade, Soo Locks, UP Matters, 05.28.19

The following documents (PDF) were shared at the tour, providing information about upcoming construction, funding and more:


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