SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. (CIRCA) — Millions of Americans would lose their jobs and the country would go into a "severe recession" if the Soo Locks stopped working, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
“The impact on our economy is horrendous if that goes down," said Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure member.
More than 30 years ago, it became clear a replacement was needed, but until this year nothing had been done.
Now, Congress has reauthorized funding to try and prevent a possible economic catastrophe.
The Soo Locks connect Lake Superior and the Lower Great Lakes for ships to pass through and are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"The same process is being used as it was back in 1855. Let the water in to raise it up, or let the water out to lower it," said Sault Area Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director Linda Hoath.
The Poe Lock is the largest of the Soo Locks and is the only one big enough for 86 percent of the ships passing through, according to the U.S. Army Corps.
It is also the only way to transfer iron ore from Minnesota mines to steel mills in the Lower Great Lakes region, and 90 percent of the iron ore used in the country passes through the locks.
“We don't build steel in the United States if we don't have the Soo Locks. It's just impossible to move that much iron ore. Our steel industry goes away," said Rep. Mitchell. "You can't move it by rail line. You can't move it by trucks. You can't move enough of that material."
"Just think of some of the things that are made out of steel that you wouldn't even think of. When we see steel, steel mills, we think of cars and things like that. There's small things, blenders," said Hoath.
The Soo Locks are so important to the U.S. economy that a six-month closure could cause nearly 11 million Americans to lose their jobs, according to a 2015 report by the Department of Homeland Security.
And that same study identified the Poe Lock as "a potential single point of failure" in the iron mining and steel production supply chain.
"If something were to happen to that lock, across the United States and Canada and other places would be devastated," said Hoath.
Congress did authorize a new lock to be built in 1986, but since then little has been done, until this year.
In April, Trump stumped for the replacement lock during a visit to Michigan.
“The good news is, when the president speaks, generally, the administration starts to listen. So, we've made significant progress," said Mitchell.
Congress passed legislation in October allocating $922 million toward building the replacement.
The plan is to have the new lock mirror the 1,200 foot long Poe Lock, and the Army Corps of Engineers estimated the project will cost $1 billion and will take up to seven to 10 years.
Though that can depend on if and how much Congress allocates each year in the budget, which Hoath said is something that will be kept in mind until the project is completed.
"The fight's never over until that is signed. We don't ever quit up here," said Hoath.
But Hoath can breathe easy for now. Last month, the first $32 million was allocated by the Army Corps of Engineers to start building.