June 26, 2016


The Panama Canal expansion is scheduled for completion late this month (27 June) and with that being the case, additional inbound cargo is destined for the United States.  The ships for which the canal was designed are now long gone. Modern shipping has increased the size of ships and increased the tonnage which can be carried.  This has created significant issues for the “old” canal structure. The older version of the canal can only accommodate ships carrying up to 65,000 tons of cargo, but recently ships which are able to carry 300,000 tons have been introduced.  Despite the limit in ship size, the canal is still one of the most highly travelled waterways in the world, handling over 12,000 ships per year. The fifty-one (51) mile crossing takes about nine hours to complete, an immense time saving when compared with rounding the tip of South America

The problem of the ever-increasing size in ships started questions into construction of a new canal joining the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. There have been discussions on three alternative routes for a new canal, through; Columbia, Mexico and Nicaragua. The Columbian and Mexican routes would allow for the construction of a sea level canal, whereas the Nicaraguan route would require a lock system.

If we look at the scope of the task, we see an immense project digging through landscape to connect two oceans.  The following map will indicate the herculean task that is being performed.


The next two digital photographs will show the massive construction project and what had to be accomplished to bring about the completed renovations.

Initial Construction

Panama Canal Expansion

The Set of Locks Project, will double the capacity of the Panama Canal by (1) adding a new lane of traffic allowing for a larger number of ships, and (2) increasing the width and depth of the lanes and locks allowing larger ships to pass. The new larger ships, called New Panamax, are about one and a half times the current Panamax size vessels and can carry over twice as much cargo. The existing canal was sufficient for its time but newer vessels with longer and wider dimensions dictate improvements.

The project has:

  • Built two new sets of locks, one each on the Atlantic and Pacific sides, and excavated new channels to the new locks.
  • Widened and deepened existing channels.
  • Raised the maximum operating water level of Gatun Lake.

As mentioned, expansion will reconfigure trans-American shipping.     A much higher volume of goods will move faster between the two oceans, decreasing transport costs and altering the delicate financial calculus that determines global shipping routes. As canal traffic increases, there will be a corresponding rise in transshipment, where goods are transferred to smaller ships that service cities with shallower harbors. The canal’s three ports — Balboa, Colón, and Manzanillo — will link distribution centers like Shanghai with smaller hubs like Barranquilla, Colombia, thus increasing Panama’s importance to regional shipping networks. This expansion will provide an attractive alternative for shipping agricultural products from the interior United States to East Asian markets, elevating the Mississippi River corridor relative to the currently dominant overland routes to Pacific ports.

OK, how with improvements in the canal affect ports in the United States and the population of the United States?


Almost every time we get on an interstate highway or major road, we see the most visible cogs in the U.S. distribution system — tractor-trailer trucks. And anyone who’s ever been stuck for several minutes waiting for a long freight train to pass can appreciate how much freight moves on U.S. railroads. But most Americans would be astounded at the amount of freight that moves through a few dozen ports along the East and West coasts and some of the country’s major waterways. The numbers are staggering: the equivalent of 28.74 million containers measuring  twenty (20) feet long by eight (8) feet wide by 8.5 feet high passed through the thirty (30) busiest U.S. ports in 2009 (the latest year for which statistics are available). If those containers were stacked end to end, they’d stretch some 111,000 miles, nearly half the distance to the moon.   Let’s take a look at the twenty-five (25) busiest ports in the United States.  Here we go:

  1. Los Angeles, Ca
  2. New York/New Jersey
  3. Long Beach, Ca
  4. Savanna, Ga
  5. Norfolk, Va
  6. Charleston, SC
  7. Houston, Tx
  8. Tacoma, Wa
  9. Oakland, Ca
  10. Miami, Fl
  11. Port Everglades, Fl
  12. Baltimore, Md
  13. Seattle, Wa
  14. Philadelphia, Pa
  15. Jacksonville, Fl
  16. Wilmington, De
  17. San Juan, Pr
  18. New Orleans, La
  19. Boston, Ma
  20. Wilmington, NC
  21. Chester, Pa
  22. Mobile, Al
  23. San Diego, Ca
  24. Gulfport, Ms
  25. Port Hueneme, CA


I decided to post this information to indicate the “new” Panama Canal is open for business with this fact being addressed by the following press release:

“The $5 Billion Panama Canal Expansion Opens Sunday, Amidst Shipping Concerns, June 25, 20166:14 PM ET”

This remarkable engineering feat joins east with west to provide (hopefully) less costly goods to consumers the world over.  It also aids efforts for countries in South America to participate with “first-world” countries for supply and demand.  For me, it demonstrates that willingness to envision and plan are still alive and well in the world today.  In times with investment money is remarkably tight, it’s good to remember patience has its own reward.  Also, this is good for engineering and has provided over the years many jobs for planners and engineering “types” the world over!

As always, I welcome your comments. B.

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