Canal expansion challenges the inland waterways

Get ready, they’re coming!

It’s a few years away, but those ginormous post-Panamax vessels will be making their way to U.S. ports, and there’s widespread concern in Washington and elsewhere that we might not be ready for them. (Post-Panamax vessels range roughly from 6,000 to 18,000 TEUs, compared to about 4,000 TEUs for Panamax container vessels.)

The expansion of the Panama Canal, to be completed in 2014, will double and triple the size of vessels that currently transit the canal. (Post-Panamax vessels range roughly from 6,000 to 18,000 TEUs, compared to about 4,000 TEUs for Panamax container vessels.) These monsters will measure 366 meters and have a draft of 15 meters, compared to the current Panamax vessels that can “only” be up to 294 meters long (965’) with a draft of 12 meters (39’6”). As a result, U.S. ports will need to be dredged to 50 feet or more. Many now have drafts of around 40 feet.

These challenges were outlined by Robert Pietrowsky, director of the Amy Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources, in remarks to the annual Legislative Summit of the National Waterways Conference, held this week in Washington.

“This is a game changer” for marine transportation, Pietrowksy said. “These vessels are larger, give out half of the carbon emissions and are designed for slow steaming, so they are 30 percent more fuel efficient. This is the future. And it’s transforming world trade.”

For the U.S., this means additional port and waterways modernization at a time when the country is retrenching on infrastructure spending due to federal budget constraints. Gulf and South Atlantic ports will benefit the most, he said, but they are so far the least prepared, as many have yet to dredge deep enough to accommodate the big ships. Ports farther north such as New York and Baltimore, are already close to 50 feet.

Pietrowsky said the inland waterways would also see its share of the action, as much of the cargo that will be offloaded in coastal ports will go inland by barge. “The inland waterways will play a key role in moving grain, coal, bulk products.”

The Corps has set off a warning alarm with this new study, and the inland industry should take note and plan for this “game changer” as operators assess the future of their business. This also provides yet another good argument in Washington to convince lawmakers to adequately fund inland infrastructure improvements.

Check out the Corps’ study and offer comments by April 15 to be considered for the initial draft. 

About the author

Pamela Glass

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.

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