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Great Lakes Commercial Ports

There are more than 100 commercial ports in the bi-national Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Seaway transportation  system. In remote locations, a port might be nothing more than a single dock constructed to serve an adjacent industry. In urban areas, ports include multiple docks creating bustling harbors teeming with commerce in support of local business and jobs.

Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Seaway System ports serve as gateways for waterborne commerce moving within the region or between North America and overseas destinations. It is at ports that the rail and highway systems interface with the waterborne transport systems.

In simple terms, a port is a collection of docks. A dock typically consists of the following elements: a shipping channel providing underwater clearance for vessels; a seawall defining the edge between land and water; and landside improvements such as an outdoor cargo storage area, and/or warehouse building providing indoor storage for cargo. Typical equipment at a dock includes cranes to unload ships, conveyer systems to transport bulk cargo, and forklifts to move and stack cargo.

Ownership and Governance

Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Seaway ports fall into one of three ownership/governance models: private ports, public ports, or a mixture of public and private control.

Private Ports

Private ports usually serve a parent company such as an adjacent steel mill, power plant, refinery, or mine. In these instances, the private company is responsible for all landside infrastructure maintenance and development. This is true in both the United States and Canada.

Public Ports

In larger communities, public port agencies have been established to develop and manage dock facilities with the goal of fostering economic development. In the United States these port agencies are typically a division of state or local government or an independent agency created by state statute. There are no federally controlled port agencies in the United States. In Canada, the federal government has been engaged in a process of divesting control of federal ports since 1998 - a process that is largely complete. Today, most Canadian ports have been transferred to the private sector, provincial government or local government. A handful of major ports (19) have been designated as Canada Port Authorities (CPA). These agencies must be financially self-sufficient, are limited in their borrowing capabilities, and must pay a portion of their gross revenue to the Government of Canada.

Public/Private Ports

Most large Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Seaway harbors include a mix of privately owned and publicly controlled facilities.

Navigation Channels

Never seen by the public, navigation channels are a critical feature of port infrastructure.  Most ports are too shallow to accommodate large commercial vessels.  Consequently, channels must be dug at the bottom of each harbor in the Great Lakes to provide adequate underwater clearance.  Just as highways must be repaved from time-to-time, navigation channels must be re-dredged from time-to-time to remove sand and silt that naturally accumulate due to erosion, currents, storms and other natural forces.

In the United States, periodic maintenance dredging is the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers.  At Canadian ports periodic maintenance dredging is the responsibility of the owner of the port, whether that be a private interest, provincial government, local government or Canada Port Authority.  Of course in every instance, relevant state/provincial and federal environmental regulations are applicable.