Ships wide enough to fit through the Canal today are called Panamax. Those that will go through the wider Canal are called Post-Panamax. These larger ships were first used in the Far East, transporting goods through the Suez Canal to Western Europe. Later they added a route between Asia and the West Coast as commerce increased, particularly to and from China.
U.S. ports on the West Coast — at Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif. — could take the larger ships. They already handle almost twice as many containers as all the ports on the East Coast do.
Though more container ships have begun heading for the East Coast, most ports in that region don’t have harbors and channels deep enough to handle the Post-Panamax container ships, which need harbor water depths of 50 feet. The East Coast ports that today have the main container terminals — New York, Savannah, Ga., Charleston, S.C., and Miami — are at 42 feet or less. Norfolk and Baltimore have the depth but not the container volumes.
Enter the federal government, which, not surprisingly, has programs to help the multibillion-dollar import-export business. The Port of New York and New Jersey alone “provides more than 269,900 full-time jobs and $11.2 billion in personal income in port related activities,” according to a December 2011 report by the Army Corps of Engineers. Cargo valued at $175 billion passed through the port in 2010, according to the report.
The Corps’ role as a key player became apparent Thursday during a routine Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on the nomination of Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick to become commanding general of the Corps. There were no GOP complaints about too much federal interference in business or even any hand-wringing over earmarks — a liberal and Tea Party press favorite.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) asked Bostick whether there were administration or congressional plans to deal with the issue because “it would affect infrastructure in the nation to make sure we can export our products to market.”
When Bostick said he didn’t know of any, Graham responded, “Well, I can tell you there’s not, and that reflects badly on all of us.”
The Corps has been studying the issue for years, and some major port programs are underway. The New York/New Jersey Port, for example, has a 50- to 53-foot deepening project underway that is projected to cost $1.6 billion, according to a December 2011 Corps release. The federal government will supply $882 million of that amount while state, local and other sources are to come up with $752 million.