The opening of larger Panama Canal locks, already postponed several times by construction delays, has been pushed back again and now is expected early in the second quarter, a canal official said.
“We expect it to be open for commercial business sometime in the second half,” said Francisco J. Miguez, executive vice president for finance and administration at the Panama Canal Authority, in a speech at the SMC3 JumpStart 2016 supply-chain conference in Atlanta. The authority later issued a clarification stating the canal would be completed in the second quarter.
Miguez said canal officials hope to be able to set a more precise opening date by late February, after the contractor, GUPC, certifies that the locks are operational, and the canal authority has conducted tests.
The canal has been aiming for an April opening of the new locks, which will accommodate container ships with capacities of up to 14,000 twenty-foot-equivalent units, nearly triple the capacity of the canal’s century-old existing locks.
Miguez said, however, that the contractor has repeatedly pushed back the expected completion date for the $5.25 billion project beyond its original October 2014 date.
Work now is an estimated 96 percent complete, but canal officials want to ensure the locks are working perfectly before commercial transits are allowed through.
During tests last fall, canal officials found leakage in a sill next to one of the new locks on the canal’s Pacific side. The contractor has worked to correct the problem by inserting 2 ¼-inch-diameter steel reinforcing rods into the concrete sills.
Carriers have been anxiously awaiting the completion of the new locks, which will allow container ship lines to more efficiently deploy post-Panamax vessels.
Miguez said canal officials expect bulk carriers to start sending larger ships through the canal almost immediately. He said container lines will likely take a few months to work out details with alliance partners and reconfigure strings and vessel deployments.
However, canal officials expect container lines to redeploy larger ships to canal routes as quickly they can. “The fleet of neo-Panamax vessels is already out there. They won’t have to be built,” he said.
The Panama Canal’s new toll structure includes volume incentives aimed at maximizing traffic. Miguez said canal officials want to make their tolls competitive with the costs of shipping through the Suez Canal or via North American intermodal rail.
“We are looking very closely at the total landed costs of merchandise,” he told JOC.com after his speech. “We are very sensitive to the market.”
Miguez said container volume from Northeast Asia to the U.S. East Coast now is divided about equally among the Panama Canal, Suez Canal and intermodal rail. He said Panama officials expect to increase their share with the new capacity and related infrastructure.
Panamanian officials are promoting the canal as a logistics and business hub. The canal has received nearly a dozen expressions of interest from companies about a planned transshipment hub at Corozal, on the canal’s Pacific end.
The proposed new port would have capacity of up to 5 million TEUs a year. It would join several other transshipment hubs that have been built or expanded in Central and South America in the last few years.
Miguez said, however, that Panama officials believe there is a shortage of hub-port capacity on the Pacific side of the canal, and that Corozal fits their vision of Panama as an emerging hub for international trade.
“We’re thinking of the canal as a node point … and not just as a short-cut between two oceans,” he said.