The Panama Canal Expansion: Challenging the State of Intermodal Transportation (pt. I)

August 15 marked the 100th anniversary of one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World: the Panama Canal. Linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by way of Central America, the canal helps complete 200 maritime routes from more than 80 countries on a weekly basis. As Dewberry's new vice president and national director of ports and intermodal, it's only fitting that my first blog be about this, one of my favorite engineering feats.

The opening of the Panama Canal revolutionized global maritime trade, but the century-old locks don't allow many of today's ever-growing ships to pass through. With construction of new parallel locks, the canal will soon be able to accommodate both more and larger vessels, including containerships up to 12,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU).

Panama Canal

Expansion Delays Due to an Unexpected Treasure Trove

The Panama government began the expansion in 2007, but years of setbacks, labor disputes, and a tremendous archaeological find have pushed its completion date to 2016. Just as we've found with our coastal projects in New Jersey and Louisiana, dredging the Panama Canal has uncovered thousands of significant artifacts. While costly to the project, this treasure trove has proven invaluable. Hidden within the 4,000 fossils are clues that researchers are using to determine the age of the land.

It's actually very likely that the history of Central America will be rewritten, as evidence suggests the isthmus was formed ages before our textbooks say so.

Panama Canal

A Shift in Trade Patterns

Now that the expansion is back on track, what will it lead to?

Transporting containerized goods from Asia to American population centers on the East Coast by way of the canal's all-water route is less costly than shipping by land. Possibly more significant, the new parallel locks will reduce canal queuing and cut a full week off sailing time. Such benefits could attract the mass-market shippers of eastern Asia who currently transport their goods through West Coast gateways; potentially moving billions of dollars in port revenue from one coast to the other.

In anticipation, East and Gulf Coast ports are deepening their channels, lengthening and modernizing their berths, expanding their container handling capacity, and providing landside connections to attract Neo Panamax vessels (the Panama Canal Authority's classification for ships that will fit through the expanded locks) that will use the expanded canal to complete their Asia-Pacific trade routes:

  • The proposed Port of Savannah harbor expansion will deepen its channel by five feet to handle larger containerships.
  • PortMiami is building a mile-long undersea tunnel that will usher container trucks under cruise lanes and beneath the city proper, allowing 16,000 trucks to bypass downtown Miami's busy streets every day.
  • The Virginia Port Authority just received a $25 million TIGER grant to improve truck connection between its terminals and the nearby interstate.

Infrastructure investments aren't just happening on the East Coast. In next week's blog, we'll discuss how West Coast ports are looking forward to serving an even bigger giant of the seas and why not all container traffic that can use the expanded canal will use it.

Click here to read part two of this blog series.

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  • Rachel Vandenberg
    Rachel Vandenberg
 
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