Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday toured the $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal — a project that he says will also bring more jobs and development to U.S. ports — and met with Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli.
“Modernizing the canal, Mr. President, is an investment in your future, but it is also a consequential investment in the future of the United States of America,’’ said Biden in a joint news conference with Martinelli. “It protects Panama’s unique place in the world economy as a new generation of massive container ships and tankers hits the high seas.”
The project, Biden said, has not only created jobs in Panama but also will spur more employment in the United States and “up and down the Americas.”
The expansion, which is expected to be completed in mid-2015, will allow the maxed-out canal to handle so-called post-Panamax ships, which can carry about three times as much cargo as the vessels that now traverse the canal. The megaships are too wide, too heavy and too long to fit through the current locks.
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U.S. ports also will have to retool to handle the bigger ships by deepening their shipping channels and installing post-Panamax cranes.
“What struck me was that President Martinelli, right at the top of his comments, was very clear that U.S. ports, particularly those on the East Coast, need to be ready,’’ said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was part of the delegation accompanying Biden. “He said that any port that is not dredged to a depth of 50 feet will be left behind.”
Currently, only two East Coast ports — Norfolk and Baltimore — are deep enough to handle fully loaded post-Panamax ships. PortMiami, which has already awarded a $122-million contract for dredging its channel to 50-52 feet, and the Port of New York/New Jersey also are expected to be big-ship-ready by the time the expansion is completed.
Port Everglades doesn’t want to be left out either, but the Army Corps of Engineers still hasn’t completed study of a proposal to dredge the channel of the Broward County port from 42 feet to 50 feet and to widen it. Funding also isn’t in place for the project, which will cost an estimated $320 million.
To get the project back on track and sort through the bureaucratic obstacles, Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Weston, said a meeting is scheduled Wednesday in Washington with the Army Corps of Engineers, the South Florida delegation, Port Everglades officials and other stakeholders in the dredging proposal.
Wasserman Schultz said she invited Martinelli and canal executives to visit Port Everglades. Martinelli is scheduled to visit South Florida Nov. 29.
The South Florida congresswoman toured the Panama Canal just after Panamanians approved plans for the canal expansion in a 2006 referendum but Tuesday’s trip to the Miraflores Locks was her first glimpse of the expansion. As much as the current canal is “an engineering marvel,’’ she said, “no description or photo can do the expansion justice. It’s just so massive.’’
The delegation accompanying the vice president also included Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of Baltimore, Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta, and Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia.
The group, said a senior administration official, “wants to drive and reinforce the same message the vice president does, which is that what happens with the Panama Canal matters for American jobs and American cities, it matters for economic growth in the United States, and it matters for broader economic growth throughout the Americas and around the world.’’