Panama Canal Expansion Spurs Growth in Port Projects

Construction projects on land and sea are creating space for bigger ships and more cargo.

Since the opening of the expanded Panama Canal in June 2016, many shipping lines are using wider, longer and heavier vessels to deliver goods to seaports along the U.S. East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. Some ports, like Baltimore and Miami, have already deepened their channels and berths and installed super-sized gantry cranes to handle these “post-Panamax” ships, which can carry 13,000 standard cargo containers compared to the previous maximum of 5,000 containers.

Many other ports have projects underway or in the planning stages.

Port Everglades, near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is in the midst of a three-part, 20-year capital improvement master plan. The port recently completed a $53 million intermodal container transfer facility that will enable the easy transfer of containers from ships to rail. According to the Association of American Railroads, intermodal transport is growing rapidly, with 13.5 million units of containers and trailers moved in 2016 compared to 9.1 million in 2000.

Port Everglades is currently working on the Southport Turning Notch Extension, which will lengthen the deepwater turnaround area for cargo ships from 900 feet to 2,400 feet, extend crane rails and add Super Post-Panamax cranes to the facility. The final phase of the master plan, the deepening and widening of the navigational channels, is also in progress. All work should be finished by 2025.

According to the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), Gulf Coast ports are making the largest investment in port improvements. Last year, the Port of New Orleans opened its $28 million Mississippi River Intermodal Terminal, which created a more efficient container transfer facility for ship cargo. The Port of Houston, in the middle of a multi-year improvement project, has funded several projects in its 2017 capital budget, including one to increase its container terminal capacity and efficiency ($54 million) and dredging and channel improvement projects ($5 million).

West Coast ports, which have been losing business to East Coast ports because of the larger Panama Canal, have been making renovations to become more competitive. In 2016, the Port of Long Beach, California, opened the first phase of a nine-year, $1.3 billion redevelopment and expansion of the Middle Harbor terminal. Phase two will see the remaking of two aging terminals into one state-of-the art automated facility that will improve cargo efficiency and reduce pollution.

The spending on port modernization projects will likely continue for the next few years, even with federal infrastructure funds up in the air. According to a 2016 AAPA survey, U.S. ports anticipated that they and their private-sector partners would spend $154.8 billion on freight and infrastructure projects between 2106 and 2020.