The Economic Impacts of Maritime Shipping in the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Region
Cargo shipments on the Great Lakes-Seaway waterway generate 50 billion USD of economic activity and 356,858 jobs in Canada and the U.S.
From the earliest days of European settlement, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River have been utilized as a means of transportation. Great Lakes cities were founded as trading posts along a vast marine highway that facilitated commerce in an era pre-dating railroads and highways. This relationship to the water has enabled the region to thrive and today, the Great Lakes- St. Lawrence region is the industrial and agricultural heartland of both the United States and Canada – with a combined GDP of more than $6 trillion U.S. dollars. This output would represent the third-largest economy in the world – behind the U.S. and China – if it were a country.
Over the last 200 years, navigation improvements in both the United States and Canada have enhanced the waterway. The Welland Canal first connected Lake Ontario and Lake Erie in 1829, enabling vessels to bypass Niagara Falls. The Soo Locks have made the St. Marys River navigable, connecting Lake Superior to the lower four Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. The St. Lawrence Seaway has tamed the St. Lawrence River, enabling ships to sail from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean since 1959.
The resulting deep-draft inland navigation system is the longest in the world, extending 3,700 kilometers (2,300 miles) into the North American heartland. This bi-national trade corridor complements the region’s rail and highway network and offers customers a cost effective, safe, reliable, and environmentally smart means of moving raw materials, agricultural commodities, and manufactured products to and from domestic and global markets. Cargoes include iron ore, coal, steel, aluminum, machinery, stone, cement, grain, sugar, fertilizers, road salt, petroleum products and containerized goods. These cargoes become the staples of everyday life — food and other household items; buildings, factories, roads, and bridges; vehicles and planes; and the energy that powers cities and towns.
Three distinct vessel-operator communities serve the waterway. These include U.S. domestic carriers (“U.S. Lakers”) transporting cargo between ports on the Great Lakes, Canadian domestic carriers (“Canadian Lakers”) operating between ports on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River and Canadian coastal waters, and ocean-going vessel operators (“Salties”), which operate between the region’s ports and overseas destinations.
These carriers serve more than 110 system ports located in each of the eight Great Lakes states and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. In addition to locks, ships and ports, a host of maritime service providers work to ensure the safe, reliable, and efficient transport of cargo. These include stevedores, warehouse employees, freight forwarders, dockworkers, crane operators, vessel agents, dredging contractors, marine pilots, truck drivers and port rail operators, tugboat operators and shipyard workers.
Infrastructure Investment Survey of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway System
$11 Billion Makeover for Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Shipping
The latest investment survey, compiled by maritime trade consultants Martin Associates, totals $10.9 billion CDN in capital spending on ships, ports, terminals, and waterway infrastructure within the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region of the “Green Shipping Corridor Network.” From 2018 to 2022, over $7.4 billion has been invested in the navigation system, and another $3.5 billion has been committed for improvements from 2023 to 2027.
The Canadian and U.S. federal governments have jointly invested around $4 billion to modernize the Seaway’s infrastructure and technology. This initiative is being carried out through: The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation in Canada and the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation in the U.S. This substantial investment spans a 24-year period, making it the most significant transformation for the Seaway in the last five decades. Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River ports and terminals are also collectively investing more than $2.7 billion in expanding their docks, equipment, facilities, and intermodal connections.
Among the most strategic “Green Shipping Corridor Network” investments, Canadian, American, and international ship owners are spending approximately $1 billion on continuing fleet transformation of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence fleets in 40 years to face the decarbonization challenges and meet the Net-Zero target of 2035 and 2050.