Traffic Declines on St. Lawrence Seaway

Waterway suffers as ships become bigger and cargo moves north-south

THE St. Lawrence Seaway was touted as one of the wonders of the world when it was opened in 1958 by President Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II. Strings of superlatives about the longest inland waterway in the world produced predictions that places such as Chicago, Toronto, and Cleveland would become major inland ports.

The reality today is falling traffic brought on by the recession and a change in the nature of world shipping since the Seaway opened 35 years ago.

Toronto's port is so dead that a spit built from landfill to expand it is now a bird sanctuary. Chicago's port is dwarfed in tonnage by such cities as Baie Comeau, Quebec, and Duluth, Ontario.

"Our tonnage is declining and has been declining ever since the recession," says Gay Hemsley, spokeswoman for the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority. "Iron ore has been affected by the slump in the steel industry in Canada and the United States. And many grain shipments are now going to the Pacific instead of to Europe, so they bypass the Seaway."

The St. Lawrence Seaway starts at Montreal where a series of locks bypass the shallow rapids in the St. Lawrence River. It is a series of canals, 14 locks, and dredged channels that allow ocean-going ships to visit Great Lakes ports.

But fewer ocean-going ships are using the Seaway. It has become an inland waterway; 91 percent of its cargo is grain, iron ore, and other commodities that can be poured into the holds of the long, thin lakers, custom-built to fit into the locks of the Seaway. The fall in general cargo - anything from shoes to cases of mineral water - is what is changing at the Seaway.

"We've seen cargo decline 9 to 10 percent every year for the past three years," says Norman Hall, president of the Canadian Shipowners Association. The association represents firms which operate 112 ships on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The slow economy has hurt the steel industry, one of the main users of the Seaway system, Mr. Hall says. Also, ocean-going vessels are getting bigger. Many are too large to fit into the locks. "When the Seaway opened, 90 percent of the ships in the world could go through. Now only 10 percent can," Hall says. "Ships are being built of 70,000 tons, large enough to go through the Panama Canal. The St. Lawrence Seaway can handle ships of 25,000 tons and there are fewer and fewer of those."

Another problem the Seaway has is that it moves cargo east-west, while shippers increasingly are moving cargo north-south.

They are taking advantage of free trade between Canada, the US, and soon, possibly, Mexico.

Take the railways in Canada. Canadian National, the government-owned railway, is building a $200-million tunnel from Sarnia, Ontario, to Port Huron, Mich. It is also expanding its reach to New York and New England.

The other major railroad, Canadian Pacific, is buying rights to tracks to get better access to the Great Lake ports of Chicago and Detroit. But those ports are being accessed without using the St. Lawrence Seaway.

"There is no solution for the St. Lawrence Seaway. You could increase the size of the locks, but the cost is prohibitive - billions of dollars," Hall says. "Containerization has been efficient. General cargo that used to go up the Seaway now moves by rail. This is progress."

The owners of the big lakers say that as long as there is grain and iron ore to move up and down the Seaway, it will have its use.

Even Hall has some solutions for the Seaway: Cut pilotage costs, make navigation in winter and bad weather easier, and reduce tolls.

"Lowering tolls would encourage foreign ocean-going ships to use the Seaway," he says.

But those at the Seaway authority do not think so. "Lower tolls aren't the answer," Ms. Hemsley says. She points out that the Seaway has already lowered tolls on some bulk cargo items such as coal, which it says saves a shipowner $13,500 (Canadian; US$10,533) a voyage. The Canadian Seaway Authority has been losing money for years - about $10 million last year.

Hemsley says she does not see lowering tolls for ocean-going ships. "The problem is the number of ocean-going ships that can use the Seaway is dwindling. What is needed is a `Feeder Fleet' of special ships built for the purpose as the lakers are for bulk cargo," she says.

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