Panama Canal at the Crossroads; Expansion Needed to Keep Up with Growth in Global Traffic

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 11, 2006 | Go to article overview

Panama Canal at the Crossroads; Expansion Needed to Keep Up with Growth in Global Traffic


Byline: Aaron J. Gellman, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

When the Panama Canal was transferred from the United States to Panama six years ago, some predicted failure. They said that no one but Americans could operate it. That was then.

Today, the canal is unquestionably well run by Panama. Shippers, retail chains, the maritime community, traders and governments agree: The canal is managed efficiently, reliably and safely by the Panama Canal Authority, the quasi-governmental group that runs the canal. On Oct. 22, a national referendum in Panama will take place that will determine the Panama Canal's future.

The key in shipping today is reliability. To a global supply chain manager the fancy name for those who get product X from its manufacturing point to the shelves at your local store the important thing is for a product to arrive in port when scheduled. If there are a million televisions heading to the East Coast for a big sale, they have to get to where they are going reliably, meaning on time. And running the canal reliably has been the strength the hallmark of those who manage it.

Today, the Panama Canal is at a crossroads. The "All-Water Route" the route from the East Coast of the United States through the canal to Asia and back is growing in double digits annually. In fact, total growth of container traffic through the canal is running at more than 25 percent annually and today represents half of canal tonnage. Very good news for the canal authority. Yet, as with all businesses, the authority must show its customers and stakeholders that the canal can still grow, handle the market demand and increase capacity to avoid delays, and thus maintain reliability.

The canal authority has been doing everything it can to increase capacity through an effective series of innovations, but growth and demand models show that the canal could run out of capacity by 2012. Additionally, the canal is currently unable to serve a key market: ships too wide to transit the present canal. When the canal was completed so brilliantly by Teddy Roosevelt and George Washington Goethals, they made the locks wider than any ships of that day.

The expansion project essentially building another lane of traffic along the canal will entail the construction of new, wider, three-step lock complexes at the Atlantic and Pacific ends of the canal that will double capacity and allow additional traffic. The demand for an expanded new lane is there and the canal authority has done enough analyses and planning to do it right. …

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