Panama Canal expansion exposes U.S. infrastructure, shipper woes

Thu May 5, 2016 1:14am EDT
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By Nick Carey

(Reuters) - The $5.2 billion expansion of the Panama Canal was expected to make U.S. East Coast ports more competitive for cargo ships carrying televisions, tennis shoes and other products from Asia.

But those hopes are fading. As the wider, deeper canal nears its debut next month, ports that stand to gain aren’t ready to handle the bigger ships that will come through.

The harbor in Charleston, S.C., for instance, is too shallow. The Bayonne Bridge outside New York and New Jersey terminals is too low.

Delayed port fixes, a freighter glut and a wobbly global economy mean that, in the short term, the benefits of the expanded waterway along the U.S. East Coast will be marginal at best, say shipping executives and analysts.

Hopes were much higher when the project started nearly a decade ago, amid cheerleading from U.S. ports officials.

“There was a lot of hyperbole,” said Lawrence Gross, a partner at FTR Transportation Intelligence. “It will have an impact, but it’s not a game changer.”

IF THEY BUILD IT, WILL THEY COME? A new lane will double the capacity of the 48-mile shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. New locks will lift freighters carrying up to 14,000 standard, 20-foot-long cargo containers – nearly three times as many as ships fit now.   Continued...

Tugboats help a barge through the Miraflores locks as it transports the last rolling gate for new locks on the  Panama Canal, in Panama City December 10, 2014. REUTERS/Rafael Ibarra