PANAMA CITY — This is a story about big, and how one of the biggest construction projects in the world, the remaking of the Panama Canal, will let bigger boats sail into deeper harbors, where authorities are spending billions dredging channels, blasting tunnels and buying cranes from China the size of 14-story buildings to accommodate super-sized cargo.
All this might knock a couple of dollars off the price of a smartphone shipped from Shanghai — or alleviate poverty in Panama, where the government plans to make a fortune in tolls — or create a windfall for the ports ready to receive the big ships, such as those in Baltimore and Norfolk.
Or not. Nobody’s sure, because no expert can predict with any certainty how the web of global trade routes will be redrawn, and who the winners and losers might be.
But with the $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal now officially half complete, a scramble is on among the hemisphere’s ports to lure a new generation of elephantine cargo ships, bulk carriers and automobile haulers to their harbors, where boosters envision an economic boom.
These new “post-Panamax” ships are the length of aircraft carriers. From the waterline, they’re 190 feet tall, or nearly twice the height of the Lincoln Memorial. The ships can carry as many as 12,000 containers, or about a million flat-screen TVs.
The crew? A dozen men.
A deeper, wider Panama Canal with its two new flights of triple locks will double existing canal capacity and allow transit for vessels with three times the cargo when the upgraded passageway opens for business in early 2015.
So important is the race to be ready for the more voluminous ships that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is spending $1 billion to raise the Bayonne Bridge to let the taller vessels pass through.
Nobody wants to miss the boat. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that U.S. ports are now spending $6 billion to $8 billion a year in federal, local and private money to modernize.
The ships are coming at a time when many experts say U.S. infrastructure — in ports, highways, bridges, railroads and tunnels — has suffered from delayed maintenance that has undermined U.S. competitiveness.
“Maryland’s Port of Baltimore has a deep harbor, but its old railroad tunnel exiting the port terminals is not tall enough for today’s double-stacked trains to pass through,” wrote Andrea Hricko, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern Califrnia, in the Dec. 3 edition of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.