Expanded Panama Canal sparks race to be ready for bigger cargo ships


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PANAMA CITY --This is a story about big, and how one of the biggest construction projects in the world -- the remaking of the Panama Canal -- will let bigger boats sail into deeper harbors, where authorities are spending billions dredging channels, blasting tunnels and buying cranes from China the size of 14-story buildings to accommodate super-sized cargo.

All this might knock a couple of dollars off the price of a smartphone shipped from Shanghai -- or alleviate poverty in Panama, where the government plans to make a fortune in tolls -- or create a windfall for the ports ready to receive the big ships, such as those in Baltimore and Norfolk. Va. Or not. Nobody's sure, because no expert can predict with any certainty how the web of global trade routes will be redrawn, and who the winners and losers might be.

But with the $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal now officially half complete, a scramble is on among the hemisphere's ports to lure a new generation of elephantine cargo ships, bulk carriers and automobile haulers to their harbors, where boosters envision an economic boom.

These new "post-Panamax" ships are the length of aircraft carriers. From the waterline, they're 190 feet tall, or nearly twice the height of the Lincoln Memorial. The ships can carry as many as 12,000 containers, or about a million flat-screen TVs. The crew? A dozen men.

A deeper, wider Panama Canal with its two new flights of triple locks will double existing canal capacity and allow transit for vessels with three times the cargo when the upgraded passageway opens for business in early 2015.

So important is the race to be ready for the more voluminous ships that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is spending $1 billion to raise the Bayonne Bridge to let the taller vessels pass through.

Nobody wants to miss the boat. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that U.S. ports are now spending $6 billion to $8 billion a year in federal, local and private money to modernize.

The ships are coming at a time when many experts say U.S. infrastructure -- in ports, highways, bridges, railroads and tunnels -- has suffered from delayed maintenance that has undermined U.S. competitiveness.

Maryland's Port of Baltimore has a deep enough harbor to accommodate the ships, but the 100-year-old Howard Street tunnel exiting the docks is not tall enough for today's trains, carrying double-stacked containers, to pass through. As a solution, the railroad company CSX is planning to build a new $90 million rail transfer facility that will allow heavy-duty cargo trains to be loaded a few miles from the port.

Meanwhile, the railroad company Norfolk Southern is blasting through Appalachian Mountain passes in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky, so its double-stacked trains packed with cargo from the East Coast port can pass through tunnels with a higher clearance.

In Miami, port authorities are so antsy to start digging their "Deep Dredge" channel that Miami-Dade County officials recently announced that they could wait no longer, and have committed to fund not only their half of the project's $180 million price tag, but also to front the federal government's share.

Experts with the Army Corps of Engineers call the Panama Canal expansion a potential "game changer," though how and where the game will change, they are not sure.

Ports in the Bahamas, Jamaica, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Colombia and the Dominican Republic are rushing to upgrade in hopes that the ships will enter their harbors, too.

No place is the competition more fierce than in the United States. Three ports on the East Coast should be ready for the big boats: New York, Baltimore and Norfolk. Together, they hope to take a bite of the maritime trade passing through West Coast terminals, which handle the most U.S. imports from Asia.

In the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico, it is unlikely that any of the harbors will be ready to dock the big ships when the expanded canal opens for business, which has left port authorities -- and the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees harbors and waterways -- explaining to their anxious constituents why they are not.

After years of review, and amid fear for wetlands and endangered species, Georgia's Port of Savannah has finally gotten the go-ahead to dredge its channel, which will cost more than $650 million.

"The expanded canal will change global shipping, and is already beginning to do so," said Panama Canal Administrator Jorge Luis Quijano.

As Mr. Quijana spoke, outside the window of the Miraflores Visitors Center, a conga line of dump trucks was moving a mountain of red jungle clay away, as bulldozers claw a new approach channel through the jungle to bypass the 100-year locks at Miraflores.

Mr. Quijana promised that the new economies of scale and faster passage between the Americas and Asia will not only change maritime routes and cargo logistics, but also will create new markets to exploit the bigger ships and deeper ports. "We'll see Texas ports shipping more shale gas to Japan, which is moving away from nuclear power to natural gas. We'll see East Coast ports -- and new sources in Colombia -- shipping more coal to China. There will be iron ore from Brazil headed to Asia through the canal, and on and on," he said.

The United States completed the original 50 miles of Panama Canal in 1914. The expansion is being done by an international consortium of players and backers, with U.S. companies playing a secondary role. The project includes a massive dredging project at the Pacific and Atlantic entrances, which is almost complete; a new 4-mile bypass channel; and construction of a series of wider, longer three-step locks to raise and lower ships. The 16 lock gates, some weighing 4,000 tons, were designed by the Dutch and built by the Italians. Beginning next month, they will be lifted onto a barge by Belgians and shipped by South Koreans to Panama, in a project managed by the French.

Currently, container vessels capable of carrying as many as 4,500 twenty-foot containers pass through the canal, but after the upgrade, vessels with 12,000 containers will be able to traverse. The so-called post-Panamax vessels will also ferry petroleum, bulk and automobiles.

Post-Panamax ships make up 16 percent of the world's container fleet today, but they carry 45 percent of the cargo. By 2030, these larger ships will carry more than 60 percent of all containers crossing the oceans, so having ports to handle them is essential.

Post-Panamax ships from Asia are already calling on the ports at Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Calif. and Seattle/Tacoma, where they unload their goods, which are then taken by truck, train or plane to the east. With an expanded canal, these ships will be able to cross the isthmus and steam directly for Hampton Roads, Va. or Baltimore or New York.

On the East Coast, post-Panamax bragging rights go to Port of Virginia at Norfolk, because its harbor is already dredged to the 50-foot depth needed to accommodate the deeper-draft ships. Rodney W. Oliver, interim executive director of the Virginia Port Authority, said the canal has been critical for the growth of East Coast trade. "It will take a few years for us to reap the benefits of a wider canal," he said, "but there will be benefits for those ports that are prepared for the increase in ship size and accompanying container volumes."

Vying to be a mid-Atlantic hub is the port of Baltimore, which in June received four "Super-Post-Panamax" cranes built in China for $40 million, which pilots squeaked under the Chesapeake Bridge. Each of the mega-cranes has booms that can clear a 14-story building and extend 206 feet from the edge of the wharf to the opposite side of a docked ship -- a reach 22 containers wide.

At the Port of Miami in Florida, authorities are boring twin $607 million tunnels that would allow big-rig trucks entering or leaving the port to bypass downtown Miami streets.

The conventional wisdom holds that the West Coast will lose market share. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which together handle about 40 percent of the nation's imported Asian goods, could lose as much as 10 or 15 percent of their cargo business, according to a group calling itself Jobs 1st Alliance, a coalition of business, government and labor leaders pushing the ports to modernize as quickly as possible.

The impact of the canal may be felt far downstream. According to its June report to Congress, the Army Corps of Engineers foresees an increase in the bulk shipping of U.S. grain, fertilizer, oilseeds and petroleum, which could exploit competitive advantages provided by the improved canal, the U.S. inland waterways and post-Panamax ships.

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