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The Great Lakes Maritime Transportation System: Critical Energy for Change

1,000 footer leaving Duluth's shipping canal.

The thousand-footer, Walter J. McCarthy Jr., heads out of the Duluth shipping canal. Photo: Don Breneman

“In the year 2000” sounded exotic and faraway in the summer of 1985, but today it’s history. Planning is an exercise in both hubris and humility; where sometimes we will be astounded by our accuracy, and at others confounded by our inability to see the obvious.

I’m new at Minnesota Sea Grant; my role is maritime transportation extension educator and I work with the Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute (see Bow Watch column for an explanation of the institute), assisting with program outreach and education.

In order to put together a work plan, it made sense to see what Minnesota Sea Grant has done in this area over the past decade or two. While interviewing Sea Grant staff, I discovered the existence of a dusty, blue-jacketed report entitled, Conference Highlights: The Seaway in the Year 2000.

The conference was sponsored by Minnesota Sea Grant and was held in June 1985. Participants were an impressive collection of maritime transportation specialists and policy experts representing industry, government, and education from both Canada and the U.S.

The report followed the St Lawrence Seaway’s 25th anniversary. The goal was to get Seaway users and government officials talking about concerns, not least of which was how to keep the then struggling Seaway competitive with other transportation routes through the year 2000 and beyond.

So what has changed over the last two decades? What can we see with our perfect hindsight? You be the judge.

Twenty years ago the major concerns included:

  • system maintenance financing and construction
  • the fairness of user fees
  • hidden subsidies in other forms of transportation
  • the need to “modernize” the Seaway
  • the changing fortune of various cargos on the lakes
  • the impacts of a world fleet of larger more efficient ships that cannot enter the Seaway
  • sagging commodity markets
  • pilotage and crew costs
  • the lack of Seaway awareness by European and international shippers
  • the need to develop new markets
  • the lack of a voice for Great Lakes issues

In short, could the “boom” of the first ten years ever be recaptured by the industry and would the Seaway ever be able to realize its potential as “the nation’s fourth coast?”

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Most Great Lakes transportation specialists would grimace reading the list above. Not only is this list relevant today, several important issues would need adding. These include:

  • the environmental concern of biological pollution caused by ship ballast exchange
  • the importance and growth in emerging Asian markets redirecting cargos
  • added costs due to post-911 security requirements
  • and the now-aging fleet and infrastructure serving the Seaway system.

So far, the view seems pretty dark. It looks like one challenge after the other for Great Lakes shipping.

Positive Changes

However, some dramatic and positive changes have occurred, a few even anticipated by the report. Yes, the growth of trade in the Pacific Rim has increased, even to the point of major ocean port gridlock. In fact, the demand on all transportation has grown exponentially over the past 20 years, with just maritime transportation projected to quadruple in the next five years at certain key ports. This reality is forcing a new awareness of the importance of the nation’s natural transportation corridors, and this new awareness can only benefit the Great Lakes region.

Growing congestion is causing us to begin formulating a national transportation policy that seeks to optimize and balance the benefits from a coordinated freight system. Greater awareness promises more resources to address environmental impacts of all transportation. We are beginning to see this through funding to address the problems of invasive species, engine emissions reduction, coastal land use, as well as data collection and monitoring.

Growth in technology is providing us with new options and challenging the maritime industry with innovative ship and shore-side infrastructure design, and is even challenging our traditional notions of logistics and business strategy.

New intermodal systems are being created, new public and private partnerships have formed, and the governments of Canada and the U.S. are working cooperatively to address Great Lakes issues. Industry, academia, and local communities are coming together to address the realities of sustainable development as witnessed through a host of interstate and bi-national efforts throughout the Great Lakes region.

Critical Mass for Action

Today we still face many of the issues that were before us 20 years ago, including several new concerns. However, we have come a long way through cooperative efforts, better communication, and education.

It may seem chaotic at times, but the critical mass for action and change within the Great Lakes Transportation Corridor is available, and how we choose to address these important issues will have a dramatic impact on our success or failure throughout the Great Lakes region, not just for the next 20 years, but for the next century.

At Sea Grant, we hope to help facilitate these changes and improvements by working with the Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute and the many other entities concerned with the Seaway.

If you’d like to contact Dale Bergeron about Great Lakes maritime transportation issues, he can be reached at (218) 726-7672 or dbergero@d.umn.edu.


By Dale Bergeron
April 2006

Return to April 2006 Seiche



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