Panama Canal's New Lane Is A Game Changer
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The overall economy remains sluggish, but many of the nation's ports are bustling. That's because businesses are already stocking up for the holiday season. U.S. shipping ports are also preparing for a bigger change. In just a few years - 2014, to be exact - the Panama Canal will open a new lane that can accommodate much larger ships. It could mark a new era in shipping, and many American port cities are investing millions to prepare.
From member station WVTF, Sandy Hausman reports.
SANDY HAUSMAN: It's a hot day in August at the Port of Virginia in Norfolk, but for longshoremen unloading the enormous ships here, it's Christmas. Merchandise from China, Korea and other parts of Asia is pouring in, so American stores will be fully stocked for the holidays.
Mr. JOE HARRIS (Spokesman, Port of Virginia, Norfolk, Virginia): The vessels come here from literally all points in the globe, and they bring everything from iPods to tennis shoes to x-ray machines, to coiled steel, food, textiles. You name it, it comes through this port.
HAUSMAN: And port spokesman Joe Harris says the future is promising because of what's happening 1,900 miles away.
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HAUSMAN: Each year, 14,000 ships pass through the Panama Canal. About half are the maximum size that will fit. Spokeswoman Teresa Arosemana says the official term is Panamax: the length of three football fields and 110 feet wide.
Ms. TERESA AROSEMANA (Spokeswoman, Panama Canal): Which is amazing, because you feel you can touch the ship from the side of the canal. It's that close.
HAUSMAN: The canal collects up to $300,000 per vessel, but some ships are too big to go through, so they head for the Suez Canal or sail directly to America's West Coast, sending cargo east by truck or rail. That's why Panama has launched a massive construction project.
Ms. AROSEMANA: We are doing a third lane, which is going to be 180 feet wide, so ships much larger than these can go through the Panama Canal.
HAUSMAN: When the new lane is finished in 2014, experts say many of the 8,000 container ships that now dock on the West Coast could instead go east, but only the Port of Virginia is deep enough to accommodate them. The rest need time and money to dredge.
In Georgia, Robert Morris says the Port of Savannah spent $40 million and more than a decade on environmental impact studies alone.
Mr. ROBERT MORRIS (Georgia Ports Authority): It's clear that the Savannah River will be one of the most studied stretches of river in the history of America when complete, but the completion of the Panama Canal is really the biggest game changer in the maritime business for the East Coast since the invention of the container, and East Coast ports are getting ready for that.
HAUSMAN: When the dredging is done, Morris says, Savannah will be uniquely positioned to unload and ship cargo to the Gulf states and Midwest. Virginia says it's set to supply Chicago and other heartland cities after its own massive project, enlarging 28 railroad tunnels so double-stacked trains, carrying one shipping container on top of another, can get through.
But Aaron Gellman of Northwestern University's Transportation Center says the Big Apple may face the biggest challenge of all.
Dr. AARON GELLMAN (Northwestern University Transportation Center): New York has to deal not only with dredging, but they also have to deal with the Bayonne Bridge, which is not high enough to accommodate passage of a post-Panamax ship.
HAUSMAN: New York could elevate or replace the bridge, which spans one of the busiest shipping channels in the world. It could build a tunnel or expand its port to the ocean side of Bayonne. But given the scope and cost of those solutions, Gellman says, it could take years just to make a decision.
For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman.
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