Navigating the Panama Canal expansion
Smoother shipping is swamping previous controversies
January 24, 2017
By: Hector Barreto
On Dec. 14, the Chinese ship YM Unity became the 500th vessel to pass successfully through the expanded Panama Canal. The new set of locks and deeper navigation channels represent a technological feat that nearly triples container capacity, while using 7 percent less water than the original canal. Now, a total of 140 maritime routes and 1,700 ports around the globe are connected by the expanded canal.
Yet despite the obvious accomplishments, much of what has thus far been written about the expanded canal has ranged from mildly skeptical to downright negative. These criticisms have focused on cost overruns, missed deadlines, the impact of flagging global trade, and safety concerns.
Part of this negativity comes with the territory: an expectation that all large and complex construction projects will come in over budget and behind schedule. The canal expansion was significantly over budget and its opening delayed by 18 months. Still, colossal construction projects often involve cost overruns and delays, largely due to unforeseen conditions, common in all but the most routine construction. Take for example Boston’s “Big Dig,” New York’s Second Avenue subway, the Eurotunnel, and the airports in Berlin and Doha, just to name a recent few.
Much has also been made of impact of the slowdown of global trade on the canal’s expected traffic. But this is a short-term view, and even if world trade were to remain flat for a time, more of that trade will go through the Panama Canal, which can now handle 79 percent of total global traffic, compared to only 45 percent that could fit through the original passageway.
Finally, just as the canal was nearing completion, reports surfaced about leaky locks, concrete flaws and tugboat problems. But the predictions of a poorly constructed canal, unprepared for its inauguration, just didn’t materialize. On the contrary, the canal has worked perfectly since its June 26 opening, and not one single construction flaw has been evidenced.
Even with tugboats guiding ships — a significant departure from the locomotives in use at the original canal — there has been only one minor operational incident. A Chinese vessel incurred a slight abrasion as it approached one of the locks. The damage was minimal precisely because the buffers, which are in place to deal with such situations, performed as expected. Further, as tugboat captains gain experience, this type of incident should be greatly minimized if not eliminated entirely.