Panama officially opens an addition to its fabled sea canal on Sunday for a new generation of super cargo ships, capping a nine-year, $5.4 billion expansion project that will double shipping capacity and affect global trade routes.
Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela will unveil the refurbished canal as the giant container ship Cosco Shipping Panama makes its way through a string of locks on the 77-kilometer Isthmus of Panama. A slew of foreign dignitaries, including the presidents of Taiwan, Chile and several Central American nations, are set to attend.
The latest generation of gigantic carriers — more than 46 meters wide and 275 meters long — could not fit through the 102-year-old canal. Unable to reach the U.S. East Coast by sea, many of the mega-carriers from Asia unloaded their goods in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, for shipment by rail to the rest of the country and beyond.
Many of the so-called "Neo-Panamax" ships now able to navigate the canal will be stacked with containers nearly 15 stories high. Others will carry cargoes of grain, natural gas and other goods nearly three times larger than before.
Analysts say the canal's annual cargo volume should double over the next decade, stoking hopes among Panamanian officials that the tiny Central American country could triple the $1 billion in annual shipping fees it currently collects.
The revitalized canal has also spurred vast construction projects at ports on the U.S. East Coast and Gulf of Mexico. The ports of Miami, New York and Houston have deepened their harbors, expanded rail access and installed gigantic cranes to service the massive ships.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey will spend more than $1 billion to raise the height of the roadway on the bridge connecting Staten Island to Bayonne, New Jersey, to accommodate the huge carriers. Leaving the clearance of the 85-year-old bridge at 46 meters would, according to economists, risk the eventual obsolescence of the Port of New York, North America's largest seaport.
Port of Miami director Juan Kuryla and U.S. Representative Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat, are also expected in Panama on Sunday for the inaugural transit. Wilson told the Miami Herald she expected the increased traffic from the canal expansion and the $1.3 billion in local port improvements to accommodate the bigger ships would bring "thousands of high-paying jobs" to south Florida.
France began work on the original canal in 1881, before engineering problems and an increasing number of worker deaths from accidents and disease brought construction to a standstill. The United States took over the project in 1904, and 10 years later it completed one of the most difficult engineering feats ever undertaken.
The shortcut vastly reduced times and costs for sea travel between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, with ships no longer required to go around the southernmost tip of South America to accomplish that goal.