Corps releases report on Panama Canal expansion impact on ports and inland waterways

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers submitted to Congress last week a report, “U.S. Port and Inland Waterways Modernization: Preparing for Post-Panamax Vessels,” which provided an examination of options for future modernization of U.S. ports and waterways.

You can download the full report here. If you prefer just a summary, click here.

Developed by the USACE Institute for Water Resources (IWR) in Alexandria, Va., the report makes a number of observations and findings, including the statement that “post-Panamax-sized vessels … will dominate the world fleet in the future. By 2030, post-Panamax vessels will account for 62 percent of the capacity of the world’s container fleet.”

“Post-Panamax vessels today make up 16 percent of the world’s container fleet, but account for 45 percent of the fleet’s capacity,” said Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, USACE deputy commanding general for Civil Works and Emergency Operations, in a statement. “This report provides to Congress and the public an analysis of the challenges and opportunities presented by the post-Panamax vessels, and outlines options on how the nation might address the port and inland waterway infrastructure needs required to accommodate these new vessels.”

See the accompanying graphic for information on the difference between post-Panamax vessels and what’s currently capable of passing through the Panama Canal.

“U.S. Port and Inland Waterways Modernization: Preparing for Post-Panamax Vessels” identifies capacity maintenance and expansion issues associated with the deployment of post-Panamax vessels to trade routes serving U.S. ports. This identification was accomplished through an evaluation of the future demand for capacity in terms of freight forecasts and vessel size expectations, and an evaluation of the current capacity of the nation’s inland waterways and coastal ports.

Other findings include:

  • World trade and U.S. trade are expected to continue to grow, with imports growing more than fourfold, and exports expected to grow more than sevenfold over the next 30 years.
  • The U.S. population is expected to grow by almost 100 million over the next 30 years, with most of the growth in the southern and western regions of the nation.
  • These vessels will call in increasing numbers at U.S. ports that can accommodate them.
  • Along the Southeast and Gulf coasts there may be opportunities for economically justified port expansion projects to accommodate post-Panamax vessels.
  • This is indicated by an evaluation of population growth trends, trade forecasts and an examination of the current port capacities.
  • The potential transportation cost saving of using post-Panamax size vessels to ship agricultural products to Asia, through the Panama Canal may lead to an increase in grain traffic on the Mississippi River for export at Gulf ports.
  • An analysis indicated the current Mississippi River capacity is adequate to meet potential demand if the waterways serving the agricultural export market are maintained.
  • A need for lock capacity expansion is not indicated.
  • Despite the uncertainty in market responses to the deployment of post-Panamax vessels and the expansion of the Panama Canal, individual investment opportunities for port expansion can be identified using established decision making under uncertainty techniques. Adaptive management techniques can also be used to address uncertainty issues. Preliminary estimates indicate the total investment opportunities may be in the $3-$5 billion range.
  • Environmental mitigation costs associated with port expansion can be significant and will play an important role in investment decisions.
  • The primary challenge with the current process to deliver navigation improvements is to ensure adequate and timely funding to take advantage of potential opportunities. 


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