Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Panama Canal's Ripple Effects

Panama is expanding its canal, which makes sense, given that they make up to $300,000 for every ship that passes through. But here's what makes this such huge news: the largest ship, called a Panamax, that can traverse the canal is also the largest ship ports along the East Coast must accommodate.

The original locks are about 1000ft long, a little under 110ft wide, and barely 40ft deep; there is also a bridge over the canal that provides nearly 200ft of clearance at low tide, which is apparently more than most ships drafting less than 40ft need. But for the 100th anniversary of the canal's opening, there will be a new set of locks parallel to the original pairs, nearly 60ft deep, 180ft wide, and 1200ft long. 

That means that the Port of Virginia will become much more important for the next generation or so, because they are already deep enough for a New Panamax and they are preparing for the new volume by doubling the size of every railroad tunnel between Norfolk and Chicago. The Savannah River will be dredged deeper and similar railroad improvements will follow. In New York, the harbor itself is big enough, but the port per se is no deeper than a Panamax, so it will have to be re-dredged and possibly redesigned, and the Bayonne Bridge is barely big enough for a Panamax--so within another 20 years, the Bayonne will be gone. Mind-blowing to think of all the repercussions of digging a bigger trench across Panama.

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