PANAMA CITY, PANAMA -- After a work stoppage earlier this year, the Panama Canal expansion is back on an around-the-clock schedule. Twelve of the 16 gates required to build new 11-story locks have arrived from Italy and much of the concrete for the massive walls has been poured.
“We are full-speed ahead right now — finally,” said Ilya Espino de Marotta, executive vice president for engineering and programs management at the Panama Canal Authority and point person on the expansion.
New three-chambered locks — as long as three Empire State Buildings laid end to end — and access channels on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the 50-mile-long canal will allow longer, heavier and wider ships to transit the canal by early 2016. They’ll also add capacity to a canal that’s just about maxed out.
Being too big for the current locks means the megaships — when fully loaded — are also too big for all but two East Coast ports, Norfolk, Va., and Baltimore, and that has set off a flurry of preparations at many U.S. ports. They’re all looking for a payoff.Port Everglades and Jacksonville also want deep water to handle big ships.
“What the canal expansion has done is focus the United States on the need for investment in port infrastructure,” said Steven M. Cernak, director of Port Everglades.
Although the $5.25 billion canal expansion is behind schedule (the original hope was that it would be ready this past August in time for the 100th anniversary of the cross-country waterway), it is now almost 80 percent complete.
To enter the post-Panamax era, PortMiami is deepening its harbor from 44 feet to 50-52 feet and widening part of its shipping channel. As part of its three-prong strategy to boost cargo and improve efficiency, a new port tunnel to speed truck traffic and a rail link to the FCC rail yard near the airport have been added.
By the time the dredge is completed next summer, the port’s post-Panamax improvements, which were funded from state, local and federal sources, will have cost about $1.3billion.
Although there has been criticism of the hefty costs, the equation is simple for PortMiami Director Juan Kurlya: “The bigger the ships, the more cargo, the more jobs.”
Richard Wainio, former director of the Port of Tampa and a 20-year Panama Canal administration veteran, isn’t so sure.
“There’s no reason in my mind to think that Miami will be the port of choice over Port Everglades. These two ports right next to each other will split” additional cargo that might result from the canal expansion, he said.
But right now, Miami has an advantage. Not only has it completed other improvements to make the port more efficient, but it expects its harbor dredging project to be finished well before a number of other ports that covet deep water.
“We do view this as a game-changer,” Kurlya said. “It’s a huge deal for East Coast ports and we do hope to benefit the most of any East Coast port.’’
But ports up and down the East Coast would prefer that the big ships steam right on by Miami, which sits down at the tip of a peninsula and is farther away from major U.S. population centers.
“We’ll be the only port at 50 feet south of Norfolk, and now we have everything it takes to handle post-Panamax business,” Kurlya said. “These are improvements that should be good for the next 20 to 25 years.”
Without them, PortMiami would be regulated to a future as a small regional port, Kurlya said.
Why? Because a new generation of post-Panamax ships is coming on line to replace smaller, less cost-efficient vessels.
The megaships can carry 13,000 TEUs, the equivalent of 13,000 standard 20-foot containers — nearly three times as many boxes as the ships that now transit the canal. Shipping lines like them because of economies of scale.
“You better be ready to handle these big ships because that is what’s coming,” said Alberto Alemán, former head of the Panama Canal Authority and now chief executive of ABCO Global, a logistics advisory company.
“If you have a port today and don’t have the capacity to handle the new ships, pretty soon you will be without ships” or must be content to be a small port where older, smaller ships call, he said.
The prospect of an expanded Panama Canal has only served to accelerate the pace of orders for post-Panamax vessels, Alemán said.
Still, Wainio said not every U.S. port needs to be big-ship ready as a reaction to the Panama Canal — even though many have jumped on the expansion bandwagon.
“This idea of keeping up with the Joneses and everyone needs super-post-Panamax cranes and deep water is just crazy,” he said. “There will be winners and losers in this and in-betweens.”
What will determine who is successful and who is not in the post-Panamax era, said Wainio, depends on simple demographics: “How many people you have, how much money they have to buy stuff and where they are.”
Mark J. Baker, director of South Florida Container Terminals, said shipping lines already want to bring bigger ships into Miami. CMA CGM, one of the world’s largest shipping companies, has expressed interest in having an 11,000-TEU ship call, he said. “For that, we need 50 feet.”
Lack of deep water has already hindered PortMiami’s growth, according to Baker. “They’re just building bigger and bigger ships these days. I hear there’s even a 23,000-TEU ship on the drawing board.”
Post-Panamax ships already have called at PortMiami and Port Everglades but they can’t be fully loaded and can navigate only during daylight hours. As Kurlya points out, “The lines make more money when the ships are fully loaded.”
Port Everglades, the top container port in Florida last year, is still awaiting the green light to deepen its shipping channel. Best-case scenario would have dredging work beginning in 2018 — two years after the Panama Canal expansion is complete.
But in the past year, more than 50 Post-Panamax vessels — albeit not fully laden — have called at Port Everglades and the Broward County port could use deeper water now.
“This is not a build-it-and-they-will-come,” said Port Everglades’ Cernak. “It’s a build it and the shipping lines can use the port more efficiently.”
As the nearest U.S. deep-water port to Panama, PortMiami hopes its geographic advantage will pay dividends. Another selling point, Kuryla said, is the wharves of PortMiami are only a couple of miles from the deep water of the Atlantic.
With its post-Panamax projects nearing completion, Kurlya likens the port to a luxury home waiting for someone to come and fill up its rooms.
“We still need to go out and market the port. If we don’t, we could have over-capacity,” he said. “We have a state-of-the-art port now and the big issue is to fill it up and start bringing in additional boxes.”
In recent years, the port has handled around 900,000 TEUs annually but it has capacity for 2million containers.
In fiscal year 2013, the numbers were going the wrong way. The port handled 901,454 TEUs of cargo — down 1percent from the previous year. By 2020, the port’s goal is to pick up an additional 1.3million to 1.5million TEUs as a result of receiving bigger ships transiting both the Panama and Suez canals, more cargo spurred by Florida’s population growth and rebuilding its trans-shipment business.
“What they’re doing in Miami, for the most part, can probably be justified by potential growth in the South Florida and Central Florida markets,” Wainio said.
But he doesn’t see the canal expansion and megaship traffic resulting in a big payoff for Miami.
Perhaps a couple million TEUs that used to go to deep-water ports on the U.S. West coast may shift to the East Coast after transiting the expanded canal, Wainio said. “But that will be divided up between ports from Boston to Brownsville. Not a whole lot will be left for Florida ports in my view.”
But the competition is on.
Kuryla and just about every Gulf and East Coast port director were in Panama recently for the canal’s 100th anniversary. Between tours of the expansion sites and cocktail parties, the port directors were busy pressing the flesh, making contacts and trying to convince shipping line executives to use their ports.
“Every other port is out there pitching more than ever,” said Kuryla, who returned home with a stack of business cards.
Since his return, he has visited several shipping lines to outline PortMiami’s progress in getting big-ship ready and try to win their business.
Currently 52 to 54 percent of PortMiami’s trade is North-South and it’s fairly balanced. But after the canal expansion is complete, Kuryla said he expects shipments from China and other Asian nations to pick up. To sweeten the deal, he said, the port needs to work to make sure those ships don’t make the costly journey back home empty.
PortMiami also hopes to win back its trans-shipment business.
About 25 percent of the port’s traffic used to be trans-shipment, meaning a large ship would dock here, unload and some of the cargo would be sent on to smaller Latin American and Caribbean markets.
Heightened inspections after 9/11 raised the cost of shipping through U.S. ports, as well as caused delays, gradually eating away at the port’s trans-shipment business until it became almost non-existent.
“It just became more financially feasible to move trans-shipments through ports offshore,” Kurlya said. But the port has been working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, he said, so the process becomes more efficient and trans-shipped cargoes are given priority for inspections so they don’t miss their next ship.
Some trans-shipment has returned to Miami but it still only accounts for 1to2 percent of cargo. A new service is coming soon. On Oct.1, CMA CGM is adding a new call in Miami for its Amerigo Express service from the Mediterranean with trans-shipment to Mexico.
Miami, Jacksonville and Port Everglades all will face competition from ports farther up the coast that want the big ships, too.
And beyond that they’ll face competition from Panama itself.
There used to be a time when Panama’s own ports were inconsequential — a ship that had transited the canal often would be unloaded in Miami and then the goods would be shipped back down to Panama on a smaller vessel.
But no more. In 1995, Alemán said, Panama’s three ports — Balboa, Colón and Manzanillo — moved 200,000 containers. Last year, that number had increased to 7million, he said.
“I believe that Panama will become the most important logistics hub of the Americas,” Alemán said. “I look at Panama as one port with terminals in two oceans, and that is very unique.”
Meanwhile, the Port of New York and New Jersey has already deepened its channels and taken arrival of three super post-Panamax cranes, but the road bed of the Bayonne Bridge still must be raised so it will be high enough for the big ships to pass under it and reach terminals along the New Jersey waterfront.
Savannah, second largest container port on the East Coast, also wants deep water. With millions and millions of square feet of warehouse space, rail yards for CSX and Norfolk Southern on port and more than 100 cranes, Savannah is a formidable rival of PortMiami.
Many products destined for South Florida arrive in Savannah and move south by rail or truck. Kohl’s, Home Depot, Wal-Mart Stores, Target and IKEA all have distribution centers in Savannah.
It is that Florida-bound commerce that Kuryla would like to lure to PortMiami with deep water. With two big stores in South Florida, IKEA should be shipping through Miami, he said.
A study commissioned by the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation a couple years ago found that although the Sunshine State has 15 seaports, about 45 percent of the containerized cargo consumed in Florida arrives via ports in other states.
Kurlya said he expects that six to 12 months after the canal expansion is complete, there will be a gradual shift of post-Panamax vessels to Miami.
“I don’t view this as a gamble,” he said.
The Panama Canal Authority’s de Marotta doesn’t view the expansion as a gamble, either.
Already, the canal contributes $981million annually to the Panamanian economy, and the canal authority is hoping for an even bigger payoff after the expansion is complete.
The expansion, de Marotta said, is about “maintaining our competitiveness and remaining a focal point for logistics. We don’t want to lose market share and we don’t want to fall behind.”
Surse Pierpoint, general manager of Colon Import and Export, a Panamanian company that provides storage services and inventory management, is an expansion believer. “If the canal wasn’t expanded, it would become like Route 66 after the U.S. Interstate Highway System” made it obsolete, he said.
That isn’t to say there aren’t challenges.
The Suez Canal, already large enough for post-Panamax vessels, is talking about further expansion.
There’s also potential competition from a possible canal through Nicaragua that is being pushed by Chinese developer Wang Jing who wants to begin construction in December and finish in five years. It will be 173 miles long — more than three times the length of the Panama Canal and much wider.
With some global economies still recovering from the recession, cargo volumes are down and may not be sufficient to currently justify the huge expenditures by Panama and U.S. ports.
The canal authority also must get the pricing right for its new third lane so shipping lines will choose it over alternatives. Fees for transiting the current canal can range up to $400,000, and the authority wants to make sure that smaller ships continue to use its smaller locks when the new locks open.
“We need to make sure that tolls are attractive for both lanes so that all the traffic doesn’t move to the post-Panamax lanes,” de Marotta said. The new toll structure is expected to be released in December.
But so convinced are canal authority officials that the expansion is the way to go that they are studying adding a fourth lane and even bigger locks to accommodate bigger super tankers and the largest cruise ships. Both the third lane and a fourth lane would use substantial portions of the current canal, which is being widened in some areas.
The canal authority already had the idea of a fourth set of locks in mind during the design of today’s expansion, de Marotta said, and there is vacant authority land available should it decide to go that route.
In October, the canal authority plans to review the marketing studies that were done for the third set of locks and update the numbers to see what kind of a return a fourth set of locks might produce. “Now with Nicaragua’s plans for a canal, we’ll revisit this and see if it is feasible,” de Marotta said.
“I can understand why Nicaragua wants to have a canal,” she said, “but I think it’s a very, very expensive proposition.” Canal authorities estimate the Nicaragua canal will cost about $60billion to build. “If you have enough money, anything can be built, but it will take a very long time to recoup that investment,” de Marotta said. “And I know they can’t do it in five years.”
Even though the new set of locks isn’t big enough to handle the world’s biggest ships, their size is still mind-boggling and makes the current canal seem a bit like a charming antique.
Inside the walls, culverts that resemble a maze of subway-size tunnels have been completed. Now visitors can walk through them, but the locks are scheduled to be flooded in June 2015. Then water from Lake Gatún and new water-saving basins will flow into the culverts and be used to fill the locks.
The next big milestone will be the installation of the rolling gates for the new locks. Twelve of 16 gates, which range in weight from 2,867 to 4,163 tons each, have already arrived on the Atlantic side of the canal from Trieste, Italy, and the final shipment of four is expected by November.
Because the gates arrived on the Atlantic side via a post-Panamax vessel that won’t fit through the canal, eight gates destined for the Pacific will be floated one by one down the canal. There, a special sloping road has been built to slide them into the excavation area where they’ll be fitted into the locks.
Once the locks are flooded, testing will begin and continue until December 2015. The canal authority even plans to lease a post-Panamax ship to help with testing and the training of canal pilots and tugboat captains, de Marotta said.
Early in 2016, the third set of locks is expected to open to commercial traffic.
“The expansion marks the next 100 years of the canal,” Canal Administrator Jorge Quijano said during the August festivities for the canal’s anniversary.