A newer, bigger lock being built on the Panama Canal is causing U.S. port authorities, rail lines and officials to spend more money on port infrastructure than the nation has seen in recent years. States and communities are rushing to gain a competitive edge. Unfortunately, states are turning to the federal government for infrastructure funds at the same time Congress and the American public push for budget cuts.
Ports on the East Coast will need upgrades to handle bigger ships once the Panama Canal opens its third lock in 2014. That lock will handle container ships three times as large as the current locks now handle in the canal. But to take those bigger ships, expensive dredging projects are needed which could cost several hundred million per port. Railroads are also increasing artery capacity to those ports. The key to a port getting the mega post-Panamex ships is water draft — the minimum depth of water a ship requires to float. The current canal handles a 39.5-foot draft for ships that can carry roughly 4,500 containers. The third lock will handle ships that may need more than a 50-foot draft to enter port and haul about 12,000 containers. Even then, some of the world’s largest container ships and oil tankers won’t be able to traverse the canal. State officials in the Southeast are excited about the prospects. Yet, the continuing resolution passed by the House of Representatives last month to fund the government froze unspent port construction funds, cut $80 million from Corps of Engineers dredging and also eliminated unspent money from the 2009 stimulus bill. The benefit with all of these competitive expansion plans is that other vessels also might be able to move more quickly through the canal. That relieves the wait time and rental shipping rates for dry-bulk ships that carry grain and oilseeds, said Ken Eriksen, a senior vice president who studies transportation for Informa Economics. “In reality, they aren’t going to be changing the vessels much, but if the larger vessels go through that other set of locks, that gives you less waiting time at the canal,” Eriksen said. “That’s the most important part of this whole thing.” If the larger vessels move through the third lock to service other shipping lanes, that should also release some of the smaller ships to service more U.S. cargo in and out of the country, Eriksen said.