Home Stretch: The Panama Canal Expansion

Ships passing under the original Bayonne Bridge must do so at low tide or with partial loads, extra ballast, or retractable antennas designed especially for the bridge. We’ve been telling you for some time in this space that one of the highest-impact development projects on the planet soon will be ready for its close-up: the $5.3-billion expansion of the Panama Canal, which is doubling the size of the world’s premier shipping artery. When the project was announced nearly 10 years ago, the new-and-improved 77-kilometer waterway through the narrow Isthmus that connects North and South America was expected to reopen for business in time for the 100th anniversary of the Canal in 2014.

But the daunting engineering challenge of building a third set of new locks—and a toxic combination of legal and labor issues—rendered that deadline unrealistic almost from the get-go.

Today—fingers crossed—the word from Panama is that the expanded Canal is “96 percent complete.” Project managers and Canal Authority execs are giving firm assurances that the ribbon will be cut before the end of May. The expanded Canal will permit super-sized Post-Panamax container vessels to travel directly to the East and Gulf Coasts of the U.S. for the first time.

Coastal ports stretching from Brownsville, TX all the way up to Halifax in Canada have been investing millions to dredge their harbors to accommodate the big ships; they’re also installing the mega-cranes needed to unload them. Ready or not, it looks like the big ships will be coming this year. Here’s a quick update on some of the high-profile efforts to welcome them:

The Port Authority of New York-New Jersey has nearly finished deepening its harbor to 50 feet (the Post-Panamax ships require clearance of at least 45 feet). The big ports of Virginia, Baltimore and Miami already are at that depth. Savannah is deepening its harbor to 47 feet from 42 feet, and aims to complete the project in 2018. Charleston in September won approval to go to 52 feet from 45 feet, which would make it the deepest harbor on the East Coast, but the project likely will not be completed for up to five years. Halifax, Nova Scotia, has a naturally deep channel of 55 feet, with 53 feet at berth.

The trip from Asia to markets on the eastern seaboard currently is about 18 days via the West Coast ports, using trucks and trains for the final leg. The same journey takes 22 days sailing though the Panama Canal to East Coast ports, including road and rail transport. Currently, East Coast ports get about 35 percent of the container traffic from Asia, while 65 percent is unloaded at such West Coast ports as Los Angeles-Long Beach and Seattle-Tacoma, which can already handle larger ships and have the additional advantage of access to roads that are less congested than those of the eastern seaboard. The wider canal will let East Coast ports take an additional 10 percent of this traffic from the West Coast, according to a report by Boston Consulting Group and C.H. Robinson.

While NY-NJ’s harbor is approaching the appropriate depth, the Port Authority of NY-NJ has stumbled in its effort to clear another obstacle in the path of the Post-Panamax mega-ships: the Bayonne Bridge. A $1.3-billion project to raise the roadway on the bridge has been working non-stop for the past two years to meet the goal of raising the bridge in time for the Canal reopening this year.

The estimated completion date for the Bayonne Bridge project recently was pushed back by more than a year, until late 2017. According to reports, the Port Authority is blaming the delays on construction challenges and setbacks from repeated blizzards during the harsh winter of 2014-2015. The agency cited changes in project staging to address community concerns and reduce overnight construction; modifications to the existing steel arch to ensure safety and reduce traffic interruptions, and complicated steel reinforcement work that required additional repairs and modifications.

Since NY-NJ is sort of a Grand Central station for East Coast shipping (most container lines find it necessary to include the port on their East Coast services), the impact of raising the Bayonne Bridge extends well beyond the metropolitan area of the nation’s largest city. The current maximum size for ships regularly calling East Coast ports is about 9,200 twenty-foot-equivalent units. After the Bayonne Bridge is raised, East Coast ports expect to eventually receive calls by ships of up to 13,000 to 14,000 TEUs.

Ships passing under the original Bayonne Bridge must do so at low tide or with partial loads, extra ballast, or retractable antennas designed especially for the bridge. The “Raise the Roadway” project is said to be the first time engineers are constructing a bridge roadway deck above the existing roadway while keeping the bridge’s lower deck open to traffic. The engineers also have pledged to rebuild the 84-year-old bridge without altering its distinctive steel-arch design (the Bayonne Bridge and the harbor bridge in Sydney, Australia, were designed by the same architect and built simultaneously).

Work on the bridge raising is almost 50 percent complete and the northbound roadway foundations are finished; bridge abutments on both ends are about 95 percent complete; and the installation of pier segments is 50 percent complete, the Port Authority said. Additionally, steel fabrication for the arch and structural steel work is 90 percent complete; the new bridge towers are 85 percent complete, and the steel strengthening work is 55 percent complete.

Installation of the new suspender and deck system is scheduled to begin on the Bayonne Bridge after the arch’s steel is strengthened. After the bridge’s navigational clearance is raised to 215 feet to allow passage by Post-Panamax ships to terminals at Port Newark-Elizabeth in NJ and on Staten Island, NY, work will continue until mid-2019 on the new roadway and bridge approaches. Officials said the revised schedule could add as much as 15 percent to the total project cost.

Ironically, if NY-NJ gets a last-minute reprieve from missing out on the grand re-opening of the Panama Canal this year, the leeway may come from the Canal project itself: cracks recently were found in one of the Canal’s new lock sills. Canal officials are adamant this latest glitch won’t derail a mid-2106 opening.

Then again, that’s what they said in response to all the previous stumbles. Stay tuned.