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Panama Canal expansion nearing completion

An April 2016 opening is scheduled, which will allow bigger-capacity ships to traverse between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. 

August 21, 2015 |

Photo: Panama Canal Gatun Locks, Stan Shebs/Wikimedia Commons

On August 11, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) breathed a sigh of relief when the main contractor for the New Third Set of Locks Project, Grupo Unidos por el Canal, reached an agreement with the National Union of Workers of Construction and Similar Industries that supersedes a strike call which would have halted work on the new locks’ construction site.

The expansion of the 101-year-old Canal is creating a new lane of traffic through the construction of a new set of locks, doubling the waterway’s capacity. When this new lane opens, sometime in the spring of 2016, so-called “Post-Panamax” vessels will be able to travel through the Atlantic-Pacific connector with up to 13,000 containers, versus the current 5,000-container limit.

As of late July, the massive $5.25 billion Canal expansion project had reached 94% completion, according to DredgingToday.com. The new lane’s 16 gates have been inserted into 22-story locksets, which have been flooded for testing purposes. Water flow through the structure’s calverts and chambers will be controlled by 152 valves. One of three dams on the north end of the Pacific side of the new lane has been completed. And construction continues on 32 buildings whose concrete volume exceeds 400 cubic meters, that will allow for 7% less water usage than the current locks.

The waterway and Gatun Lake have also been dredged to accommodate larger ships.

This expansion is reportedly spurring construction in port cities along the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, in anticipation of larger ships and more business coming their way. The Canal Authority also expects to lure new businesses with its wider, deeper waterway. In January for example, ACP signed a cooperation agreement with the Port of Lake Charles in Louisiana for the purpose of attracting new customers from the liquefied natural gas industry, whose vessels’ beam dimensions had prevented them from using the Canal in the past.

This expansion project, which has been ongoing for seven years, might not be the last word on the Canal’s growth, either. ACP reportedly is considering a $17 billion proposal from Harbour Engineering Company Ltd., a subsidiary of state-owned China Communications Construction Co Ltd., for a fourth set of locks big enough to handle ships with 18,000 to 20,000 containers.

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