Great Lakes shippers riding a wave of infrastructure funding Trains and trucks move the bulk of goods across the U.S. Some sailors say the Great Lakes waterways are underused shipping options and hope $17 billion of federal investment can help revitalize them.

A rising tide of infrastructure funding floats new hope for Great Lakes shipping

A rising tide of infrastructure funding floats new hope for Great Lakes shipping

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Sailors on the Great Republic, a Great Lakes bulk cargo carrier built in 1981, receive their mail on the Detroit River. Julian Hayda hide caption

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Julian Hayda

Sailors on the Great Republic, a Great Lakes bulk cargo carrier built in 1981, receive their mail on the Detroit River.

Julian Hayda

Behind barbed wire and tangled between highways and railroads on Chicago's South Side, the dockside at Iroquois Landing is often a hive of activity. In late fall, forklifts and dump trucks rushed to get pallets of lumber and mountains of iron ore off ships before Great Lakes locks and canals froze to a halt on Jan. 5.

But Iroquois Landing is only a small part of the International Port of Illinois, and elsewhere it looks far different.

Six miles further down the Calumet River, there's a vast expanse of water and asphalt that sits mostly empty. Grain silos and rusty ships from the 1950s remain from a bygone era when massive amounts of Midwestern grain, coal, and other commodities were shipped to the East Coast via the Great Lakes.

Erik Varela, executive director of the Illinois International Port District, stands beside a pile of iron ore at Iroquois Landing, where the Calumet River meets Lake Michigan, on Chicago's far south side Julian Hayda hide caption

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Julian Hayda

"Coal has declined, that's not a secret. Steel production has shifted away. So a lot of ports are looking to diversify their cargo," says Erik Varela, executive director of the Illinois International Port District, the state-owned corporation that leases cargo space on the maritime corridors near Chicago.

Trains and trucks have taken up the bulk of American shipping in recent decades, Varela says, exacerbating continuing COVID-era supply chain disruptions. He and others think inland shipping using cargo ships is a good alternative.

"We only have so much highway space," says Varela. "There is an opportunity on the Great Lakes and the inland river system to increase shipping."

Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, agrees. "Truck drivers are in short supply. Railroads are kind of maxed right now," he says. "Boats simplify things."

Sam Buchanan pilots a J.W. Westcott mail boat in the Detroit River to rendezvous with another ship, the Great Republic. Julian Hayda hide caption

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Julian Hayda

The Biden administration has set aside $17 billion to improve maritime infrastructure, money that Varela wants to invest into capital improvements at the Illinois port for the first time ever.

But he says it's hard to diversify the port and use new shipping methods when the existing infrastructure is crumbling. During a tour of Iroquois Landing, he points out that half of a 1,000-yard long dock wall has collapsed into the Calumet River.

"You can't put a crane there," Varela says. Caution tape marks where ships could dock if it were safe. He looks to other ports for a hopeful future.

Scott Skrzypczak on the pilot boat he uses to board international vessels passing through Detroit. Julian Hayda hide caption

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Julian Hayda

Making the Great Lakes Intermodal

In 2022, the Port of Cleveland received over $27 million in federal Port Infrastructure Development Program funding for "intermodal" infrastructure that can lift containers from trucks or trains onto ships. Unlike loose commodities, those containers can transport high-value products like pharmaceuticals or heavy machinery.

The Port of Monroe, on Michigan's Lake Erie shore, also received federal funding for such infrastructure in 2022. Local officials and executives at Ford Motor Company are hoping to ship Mustangs from Michigan directly to Europe after construction on a finishing plant adjacent to the port finishes later this year.

"It's kind of an exciting time in the Great Lakes because you are seeing the traditional bulk is in decline, but there is a lot of investment and interest in building these other cargoes," says Scott Skrzypczak, a licensed Lakes pilot and advocacy chair at the International Ship Masters' Association.

Other ports, like Duluth, Minn., have worked closely with rail companies to make sure cargo can be delivered seamlessly from trains to ships. Even though the International Port of Illinois has direct connections to six of the seven largest rail networks in America, trains are unable to load directly onto ships and vice versa.

The Great American Bottleneck

Schwieterman says that intermodal infrastructure could be a boon for Chicago. Half of America's container trains come through the region, causing delays in the entire system.

"We're a massive bottleneck," Schwieterman says. "We have to do all these things to ease congestion, and the port is sitting there underutilized."

"We're coming to a realization that we need to find transportation efficiencies and ways to make things cheaper," Skrzypczak says. "It doesn't get cheaper and more efficient than water."

One 2017 analysis from the consulting firm Sea Point Group concluded that moving containers through a combination of ocean-going and inland ships could save more than 45% on fuel costs compared with moving them on trains.

"If you're trying to reach climate goals by 2040 ... something's going to have to give here," Schwieterman says.

Meanwhile, Varela says ships are often the best way of transporting components for wind turbines, given their size. He also expects a possible windfall from shipping hydrogen, as it's notoriously volatile to transport overland but promises to be an alternative fuel source in aviation and other sectors.

With expansion comes environmental concerns

Despite maritime shipping's low greenhouse gas emissions, environmental activists say expanding Great Lakes shipping poses other concerns.

"The lakes have just been ravaged by invasive species brought in by international shipping since the [St. Lawrence] Seaway opened in 1959," says Dan Egan, author of Death and Life of the Great Lakes and journalist-in-residence at the Center for Water Policy at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

In 2021, the U.S. Forest Service estimated that invasive zebra mussels, which arrived in America in overseas ship ballasts in the 1980s, cost the Great Lakes economy upward of $500 million annually. The mussels are notorious for damaging power plant infrastructure, water intake systems and other industrial sites on the Great Lakes.

"You kind of can still make the argument that there should be no overseas ships coming into the Great Lakes, given the potential for future damages and the historical damages that have already been done," Egan says. "I don't think standard pollution from engine exhaust is really that big of an issue compared to biological pollution."

The Biden administration's Port Infrastructure Development Program requires project proposals to include environmental mitigation plans, but they're mostly limited to emission standards.

Still, Egan finds solace that only 4% of domestic shipping is done via water. He thinks the inherent inefficiencies of inland shipping — frozen locks in the winter, small canals, and labor shortages — will be too unappealing to modern logistics companies.

"It can't just work when the weather's nice," Egan says. "That's not how logistics and transportation work."

Investments in year-round shipping

Some, like Varela and Skrzypczak, hope the Great Lakes waterway can keep expanding its shipping season, similar to 2023's record length. The 2022 National Defense spending bill earmarked $350 million for the Coast Guard to build the first heavy icebreaker on the Great Lakes in decades. A long-delayed expansion of the Soo Locks, which connects Lake Superior to the Lower Great Lakes, may also allow the shipping season to extend year-round.

"It's really neat to see the attention going back on to the waterways," Skrzypczak says. "That's jobs in the local economy, into a disused dock."