The USCG and the Widening of the Panama Canal: The Invisible Resource?


2013-01-16 By Robbin Laird

The USCG is already severely distressed.  

And the Congress and the Administration clearly are not positioning themselves to make the USCG more resource rich.

But there are a growing number of challenges facing the USCG which are pushing it beyond the limit.  

The Panama Canal gets bigger: 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. Credit: Washington Post

One of these is simply the rise of new cargo ships which are much larger and bigger and will impact the ocean entry points to ports, ports and inland waterways.

In an interview last year, Captain Cynthia L. Stowe, Commander of U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Francisco which highlighted the challenge of dealing with the new cargo ships.

SLD: Captain, how significant is the impact of the new mega container ships on the US maritime transportation system? 

Captain Stowe:  It’s a significant issue in terms of both logistics and waterways management because this larger class of container ship that is now arriving on the West Coast is the largest class of vessels to arrive in North America, although they’re not the biggest ships that are in service right now. 

The FABIOLA class of container ship is here as a result of even larger ships entering European trade, freeing up these ships to enter the U.S. pacific trade. The reality is this class of ship presents a challenge in terms of the size of our existing port infrastructure and we don’t have a good offshore solution to container delivery.  These arrivals are a unique challenge to the U.S. because of the costs associated with expansion of our port infrastructure, if it’s possible at all. 

The USCG resources already severely challenged will see shortfalls associated with the arrival of the large container ships. And Maersk has a bigger one in the pipeline….

And coming soon is the widening the Panama Canal to facilitate the passage of such large ships. 

The Washington Post has just posted a useful story on the widening of the Canal and its impact.

Notably, however, the USCG is not even mentioned in the story, which seems to be the fate of the USCG in the visibility game where resources matter in Washington. 

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….. 

“This is going to take several years to sort out as the shipping industry experiments with new routes and hubs, but it is a very big deal, and there will be some winners and losers,” said Paul Bingham, an economist with the infrastructure consulting firm CDM Smith. 

The impact of the canal may be felt far downstream. According to its June report to Congress, the Army Corps of Engineers foresees an increase in the bulk shipping of U.S. grain, fertilizer, oilseeds and petroleum, which could exploit competitive advantages provided by the improved canal, the U.S. inland waterways and post-Panamax ships.