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Sailors hope infrastructure investment will revitalize Great Lakes

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Most of the goods we buy get to where they need to go on the back of a truck or a train. But about 5% of cargo in the United States is transported over water, including in the Great Lakes. Many of the ports and waterways there are aging and need updating, and that's something leaders in Rust Belt cities are hoping to do with $17 billion from the Biden administration. From Chicago, reporter Julian Hayda has this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORKLIFT RATTLING)

JULIAN HAYDA, BYLINE: The International Port of Illinois is on the far south side of Chicago. It's a vast landscape of asphalt, hosting a beehive of forklifts. And on a late fall day, workers sort pallets of lumber fresh off of ships from Canada.

ERIK VARELA: They could be going to Home Depot or Menards. They could be going to maybe a construction company.

HAYDA: That's Erik Varela, the port's executive director. In addition to lumber, the big ships that travel through the Great Lakes also drop off towering loose piles of iron ore, gravel and salt. Those goods used to mean big business, especially at this port when it opened in 1959. Now, a majority of the docks here sit vacant. Varela thinks it's because this 1,800-acre port has hardly seen any major capital improvements in decades.

VARELA: I mean, you could see the condition of it over here, right?

HAYDA: Nearly half of the thousand-yard-long dock is partially collapsed into the river that connects to Lake Michigan.

VARELA: You cannot put a crane there or unload things safely over there. And it just kind of gets worse as you go down the dock wall here.

HAYDA: He's hoping to get a slice of the new federal funds earmarked for maritime infrastructure. It's not an easy case to make. A congressional report issued last spring shows the amount of domestic cargo on the Great Lakes - like coal and iron ore - has dropped by half since this port opened. DePaul University Professor Joseph Schwieterman researches transportation. He thinks there's a great deal of untapped potential on the Great Lakes to relieve COVID-era supply chain disruptions. He also thinks shippers need to think more creatively to bring in other commodities, like machinery, electronics and pharmaceuticals on the water.

JOSEPH SCHWIETERMAN: Truck drivers are in short supply. Railroads are kind of maxed right now. So when you can ship vast quantities on a boat, you know, you simplify things greatly. Marine vessels are just so fuel efficient. They're so low-cost. The bulk they can handle is second to none.

HAYDA: Other ports along the Great Lakes, like Cleveland and Duluth, have invested millions to move those types of valuable goods. Both cities have even recently begun regularly scheduled sailings directly to Europe. That's led several other cities to compete for federal funding to build facilities to seamlessly move containers from ships onto trains and trucks. Critics say that the long-distance potential might still be limited, though. Most lakes are connected with old locks, which freeze up in the winter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIP HORN BLARING)

HAYDA: At the Port of Detroit before the sailing season ended, Captain Scott Skrzypczak said he's not discouraged.

SCOTT SKRZYPCZAK: It's kind of an exciting time in the Great Lakes.

HAYDA: He sees a renewed interest in shipping, especially if infrastructure investment can extend the season and open up new types of jobs.

SKRZYPCZAK: We're starting to turn our attention back to the waterways. It's going to take some time, and it's going to take a lot of money to do it. But the pendulum is starting to swing that way, and it's encouraging.

HAYDA: As the government looks forward on infrastructure, mariners here say it might also make sense to invest in inland shipping, an industry that's been keeping economies afloat for a long time. For NPR News, I'm Julian Hayda on the banks of the Great Lakes Waterway.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGIA SONG, "IT'S EUPHORIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Julian Hayda