Panama Canal expansion now 96 percent complete

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The much-anticipated Panama Canal expansion project is now 96 percent complete, but will not be open to commercial traffic in April as previously reported, according to the canal authority.

Conflicting, adversarial and ambiguous messages from the Panama Canal Authority, or ACP, and Grupo Unidos Por el Canal, the consortium building the expansion’s new locks, have cast doubt over whether commercial operations will debut by mid-2016 at all.

The canal authority has not disclosed when it now expects to inaugurate the project. The earliest would be some time in the second quarter of 2016, officials have said. Officials with GUPC have been even less clear, saying “April 2016 remains feasible as a functional completion date” then saying an April commercial opening is nothing short of “impossible” just two days later.

It’s been a year of trials and tribulations for the project, whose new locks will handle ships with capacities of up to 14,000 twenty-foot-equivalent units, nearly triple the size of Panamax ships that can transit the century-old existing locks.

Labor strikes, litigation and leaky locks, though, have managed to delay the canal’s official inauguration by more than a year.

“We are very close — only 4 percent remains to complete the project,” Jorge L. Quijano, ACP director and CEO, said in a statement on Dec. 21. “An expansion of the Panama Canal has never been done and we should all feel very good about where we are today.”

The news comes after leaks were found in August in the concrete sill separating the lower and middle chambers of the Cocoli Locks on the Pacific side of the canal. The canal authority warned Grupo Unidos Por el Canal, the consortium building the locks, it “would not accept the current works until flaws are fixed.”

According to Quijano and the ACP, the lock reinforcements should be completed as soon as mid-January and crews will begin testing the locks shortly thereafter. Transit trial tests with a chartered vessel will then begin in April. A date for the expansion’s inauguration, though, has still not been given.

The canal authority said it expects the ribbon-cutting to be scheduled some time in the second quarter of 2016. Subsequently, the commercial opening date will be selected.

A few hours after the canal authority announced the news, however, GUPC issued its own a counter-statement, blaming the canal authority for any slippage in the completion date. GUPC said that it “wants to clarify that the consortium has repeatedly communicated to ACP that April 2016 remains feasible as a functional completion date”, but that making the April deadline “depends on the willingness” of ACP “to prioritize the solution of the administrative and financial issues”. GUPC alleged that “ACP continues to delay any payment awarded under the contract”.

Then, two days later, in a Spanish news service EFE interview with GUPC chief executive Giuseppe Quarta, Quarta was quoted saying that an April 2016 completion date would be “impossible” given the ACP’s “bureaucratic and payment rhythm”, which if not accelerated would delay completion by another six months. EFE quoted Quarta as criticizing the “excessive and inexplicable delay” in ACP procedures and payments and claiming that the ACP’s bureaucracy was “smothering” the locks work.

The $5.25 billion expansion project was originally slated for completion in October 2014 to coincide with the canal’s 100th anniversary, but disagreements between the canal authority and GUPC over cost overruns and a labor strike in June 2014 pushed the deadline back.

That deadline was pushed back further by labor conflicts and the recent discovery of the leaks in the canal’s concrete sills. Quijano, however, has remained optimistic throughout the recent crises that the canal will stay on track for an early 2016 opening.

The nation’s foreign ministry has already sent invitations to some 70 heads of state for the opening ceremony.