Editor’s Note:An earlier version of this article included material borrowed and duplicated, without attribution, from Environmental Health Perspectives, a monthly scientific journal. In that earlier version, four sentences were copied in whole or in substantial part from “Progress and Pollution: Port Cities Prepare for the Panama Canal Expansion,’’ published on Dec. 3 and written by Andrea Hricko, a professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California.
It is The Post’s policy that the use of material from other newspapers or sources must be properly attributed. The Post apologizes to Andrea Hricko, to Environmental Health Perspectives, and to its readers for this serious lapse.
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.
“As a solution, the major railroad company CSX is planning to build a new intermodal railtransfer facility that will facilitate moving double-stacked trains away from the port. The Port of Miami, in Florida, has started boring twin tunnels that would allow big-rig trucks entering or leaving the port to bypass downtown Miami streets, at a cost of $607 million.”
The re-wiring of America’s trade routes is also taking place far from the sea. As Hricko points out, the railroad company Norfolk Southern is blasting through Appalachian Mountain passes in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky so its double-stacked trains packed with cargo from the East Coast port can pass through tunnels with a higher clearance.
Experts with the Army Corps of Engineers call the Panama Canal expansion a potential “game changer,” though how and where the game will change, they are not sure.
Ports in the Bahamas, Jamaica, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Colombia and the Dominican Republic are rushing to upgrade in hopes the ships will enter their harbors, too.
No place is the competition more fierce than in the United States. Three ports on the East Coast should be ready for the big boats: New York, Baltimore and Norfolk. Together, they hope to take a bite of the maritime trade passing through West Coast terminals, which handle the most U.S. imports from Asia.
In the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico, it is unlikely that any of the harbors will be ready to dock the big ships when the expanded canal opens for business, which has left port authorities — and the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees harbors and waterways — explaining to their anxious constituents why they are not.