THE St. Lawrence Seaway, the liquid highway that opened the world's economy to the Midwest 50 years ago, was nearly built as a Canada-only passage, thanks to entrenched opposition from U.S. railroad interests who wanted to protect their monopoly on shipping cargo. It took Cold War national security concerns and a passionate speech by a freshman senator named John Fitzgerald Kennedy to break the logjam and get the United States to join the project, though Canada still ended up footing about 70 percent of the bill.
When the Seaway was formally opened by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II in 1959, it was justifiably hailed as one of the engineering marvels of all time. But while the Seaway has been an economic benefit to Toledo and the entire Midwest, it was in essence stillborn.
When it opened, predictions were that it would carry 50 million tons of cargo a year but the peak was reached more than 30 years ago. Since then, it has drifted downwards.
Some of this is due to the poor economy. But it is also clear that the Seaway has fallen technologically behind the times. Today's ocean-going vessels are mostly larger and deeper than ships in 1959, too large, in many cases, to pass through the Seaway.
Toledo's longtime member of Congress, Marcy Kaptur, has been backing an idea that is essential for our nation's economic future: Spend what it takes to modernize the Seaway, including widening and deepening its locks not just for today's vessels but with an eye to whatever future transportation needs may come.
Miss Kaptur has been pushing hard to give the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. additional authority to get the job done. Not to do this would be penny-wise and pound-foolish, and would risk eventually turning the Seaway into a quaint relic and our area to a hopeless backwater. Already, fewer than two "salties," or oceangoing vessels, pass through the Seaway's locks every day.
Canada would have even more to gain from modernizing the Seaway than the United States. Surely Canadian leaders realize that their industrial heartland should not be ignored in favor of projects like the deep-water port for huge ocean-going ships being planned at Melford, Nova Scotia.
As for politics on this side of the border, what will have to be overcome now is residual opposition not only from the railroads but from members of Congress who represent competing Atlantic and Gulf Coast ports.
But with the Democratic surge and lawmakers from Great Lakes states, such as Rep. David Obey, of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, occupying key positions of power in Washington, there is no better time than now to get the project moving.
Our government must act swiftly to get the Seaway refurbished and help the Great Lakes region become a responsible and vibrant part of the 21st century global economy.